Keeneland's seventh president BIll Thomason (Photo from Keeneland)
If you run into Bill Thomason at Keeneland, there are a couple of things you can bet on from the racetrack’s new president: He will greet you with a warm smile, and if he doesn’t already know you by name, it won’t take him long to find out.
By all accounts, Thomason is a genuinely nice guy.
But beyond the niceties that seem to come so easy for Keeneland’s seventh president is a man who has a deep and abiding passion for the historic Keeneland racing and sales enterprise, as well as the thoroughbred industry upon which it was founded.
His is a passion borne out of respect for those who came before him, whose mission to present “racing as it was meant to be” remains strong more than 75 years later. It’s a passion developed over 28 years working at Mill Ridge Farm under Alice Headley Chandler, the daughter of Keeneland’s founder and first president, Hal Price Headley. And it’s a passion strengthened through lifelong connections made with people behind the scenes at Keeneland and within the industry itself.
A humbleness also seems to radiate from Thomason, as evidenced in his jovial insistence that “when anything good happens around here, I can promise you it’s something they (the Keeneland staff) have done, and when we mess up anything it’s because I got involved.”
“I want people to know about the people who are around me more than I want people to know about me … because they’re what it’s all about,” he added. “Every single person here takes such great pride in Keeneland, they take such great pride in what it stands for, and they want every single person who comes on these grounds to experience the same thing they have experienced. They want to share it.”
Yet, Thomason, an accountant by trade and most recently chief financial officer for Keeneland, has set the bar high for himself in his new endeavor.
“I hope I can do what the other six (presidents) have done and, in some small way, leave it a little better than what I found it.”
Back to the future
Growing up in the small Central Kentucky city of London, Thomason was no stranger to horses.
“We were in a neighborhood that had a field behind the houses that was 10 or 20 acres, and everybody had ponies,” he said. “Every day we’d go out back, throw on a bridle – it was all bareback – and we had acres to ride through. We spent every afternoon after school and every weekend just wandering.”
While he remembers that experience fondly, Thomason admits to outgrowing horseback riding during his teenage years. And when he and his family would make frequent trips to the “big city” of Lexington, Keeneland never seemed to be “on the route.” “We’d come to Lexington to shop or go to the doctor, but I really never came to Keeneland during that time,” he said.
Still, throughout his early years Thomason was ambling down a course that would eventually lead him to a career in the horse industry and to Keeneland.
After graduating high school, Thomason returned to Lexington to attend the University of Kentucky – and stayed. He majored in accounting but, as some might think, not because he had a “proclivity” for it.
“In my freshman year, when I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do, I met this really, really cute, very bright girl who lived in Lexington, Ky., who just happened to decide she was going to major in accounting. So, it was a natural thing. If I wanted to spend all my time with her why wouldn’t I want to major in accounting,” he said, laughing.
Bill and Barbara Thomason (Photo from Keeneland)
That “girl” was Barbara Lear, now his wife of 35 years.
“I followed her all the way through her accounting classes, and that’s how I ended up here,” Thomason added.
Taking a detour
After college, while Barbara Thomason went to work for the accounting firm Coopers and Lybrand (the first female professional in the firm, he points out), Bill Thomason went to graduate school and then became an accountant at Alexander Grant and Co. It was while at Alexander Grant that his life and his career would take a detour – a detour to Mill Ridge Farm.
Located in Lexington, Mill Ridge Farm opened its gates in 1962, shortly after Keeneland founder Hal Price Headley died and left his daughter, Alice Headley Chandler, “a parcel of land and four broodmares,” as the farm’s 50th anniversary brochure states.
The farm – and its owner – would go on to gain international renown in the thoroughbred industry. They would also become a client of Alexander Grant and, as fate would have it, of Thomason’s. He and Chandler formed a professional relationship that would lead him to Mill Ridge as the farm’s financial and administrative manager and to a personal friendship that was the foundation for a 28-year partnership there.
“The thing that was great is I was able to learn that finances are important, and that’s obviously my background. But any decision that we made brought finance into the equation, it brought science into the equation with her knowledge of pedigrees, which were important. … and she also had that special ability, that gut feeling that only artists can have, knowing what things were really going to work,” Thomason said.
“I learned to appreciate the business from her,” he added.
In particular, Thomason learned a profound appreciation for the people behind the business.
“With the successes you learn to appreciate all the people who are part of making those successes. … It’s a difficult thing to raise these horses, these animals, and just to care for them, to let them be horses and to live that every day – the energy and effort to getting them here. I got all that. It’s part of my background,” he said.
Not surprisingly, throughout his tenure at Mill Ridge Thomason also developed an appreciation for Keeneland – the “model racetrack” Chandler’s father helped found and presided over 75 years ago.
Keeneland – a ‘shining light’
In 2010, after 28 years at Mill Ridge Farm, Thomason’s journey in the horse business took him to Keeneland as vice president and chief financial officer under then-president Nick Nicholson. After Nicholson announced his retirement earlier this year, the Keeneland trustees chose Thomason to succeed him.
“Bill has incomparable experience in both the financial and equine sectors,” Nicholson said at the time of Thomason’s appointment. “He is knowledgeable in both the racing and sales aspects of our business and knows all that is involved in bringing a consignment to the Keeneland sales. In my opinion, he is uniquely poised to lead Keeneland during this vitally important time for Thoroughbred racing.”
Thomason took over the reins Sept. 1, diving head first not only into the business of maintaining Keeneland’s tradition of Thoroughbred racing and sales but also leading the way in finding solutions to what he calls “complex industry problems.”
“I think back to 1935-36, they had just had a racetrack go under in Lexington, but you had a group of men, during the Depression, saying it’s too important – we’ve never been without a racetrack. We’re the center of the world for the horse business… And against all odds, they say not only are we going to have a racetrack, but we’re going to have a racetrack that rivals all the racetracks in the world. And they weren’t going to be dissuaded from doing it.”
And neither is Thomason going to be dissuaded from guiding Keeneland forward.
“When you look at the timeline and all the different things that were going on through the years – from the Depression in the ’30s to war in the ’40s to all the economic cycles, there’s always been one shining light out there, Keeneland.”
“I don’t know where’s it’s going to go or where the journey’s going to end up as we’re going down the road we’ve been on for 75 years, but I plan on continuing along the same path that Keeneland’s been on, acknowledging the strong foundation that Keeneland’s been so fortunate to have had,” he said.
Thomason’s healthy respect for the Keeneland tradition does not mean, however, that he won’t be looking toward its future – especially connecting to a “new generation” of Keeneland patrons.
“A huge part of my job is making sure we’re providing those opportunities for a new generation to experience the horse business in a proper way, where they’re going to be able to relate to it, which is one of the things we spend every day doing – making sure we’re being innovative, that we’re taking things that kids and young people today can relate to,” he said.
“And we also want to make sure that we take all those experiences they’re having and we integrate the horse into that. … Making sure we introduce them to the horse – the athletes – and what they mean to the business is very important. There can’t be a disconnect there.”
Thomason also insists that Keeneland’s commitment to community will remain strong.
“This is terribly important to us,” he said. “We’ve created some very special things here, right now, in our acreage – 1,100 acres of an arboretum, just a beautiful place that’s open 365 days a year to the community that we want people to be able to enjoy.”
“Inside of this, we understand there are certain unique features that nobody else has. We’re working right now on some different ways to make them accessible and available to the community.”
One of those things is the Keeneland Library.
“There’s nothing like it anywhere,” Thomason said. “We’re going to develop it into the repository and the keeper of everything that’s important about the Thoroughbred industry, whether it’s digital, print, photographs, artwork.”
“But that’s only the beginning,” he added. “Within the next month, we’re going to be launching a new operating foundation for the library … which is going to be dedicated to enhancing or promoting the individual mission of the library and the collections that it has, expanding those collections, and caring for them.”
While growing the Keeneland Library and Museum Foundation, Keeneland also will continue its long-established giving foundation to provide funds to the community. Additionally, a third project – a joint venture with Crossgate Gallery in Lexington to organize a sporting art auction to be held at Keeneland in the fall of 2013 – is also under way.
“Everything we can do in developing this ancillary part of what Keeneland does is going to be dedicated to our charitable giving arms. It’s going to be a huge emphasis for us,” Thomason said.
Through ‘their eyes’
To Thomason, the “shining light” that is Keeneland is often best seen through the eyes of others – especially those who may be experiencing the spring or fall meet for the first time. He often recalls when his late daughter Marcie (1980-2006) first brought friends home to Lexington from the University of Virginia, from where she and her sisters, Melissa (Chambless) and Laura, all graduated.
“When she brought that first group of three or four here, seeing them at Keeneland, they were bug-eyed – they were just blown away. The next time there were eight of them. The next time there were 12. By the time they were finished, they were here every meet. They still come back.
“Seeing Keeneland through their eyes … listening to them describe their experience … we just should not take it for granted,” Thomason said.