John Nicholson, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park since June 1, 1997, announced his retirement Jan. 15, effective April 30. Nicholson is the longest-serving executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park in the park’s 35-year history and has served at its helm during the park’s greatest period of growth.
“With our recent 35th anniversary, I started to think about my own history with the park and all that we have accomplished during this tenure,” Nicholson said. “It has been a difficult decision to consider retirement because I love the park and highly value the team of people I work with, but after 17 years, this is the right time for the park and for me personally. I am looking forward to exploring new opportunities. I leave knowing that the park is now a serious and relevant player in equestrian sport around the world, and that it provides an international calling card for Kentucky, not just in attracting and hosting major events, but also acting as an important cultural and economic driver for the Commonwealth.”
“Jane and I thank John for his hard work and devotion to the Commonwealth throughout his tenure at the Kentucky Horse Park over the last 20-plus years,” Gov. Steve Beshear said. “His leadership has made the horse park an international destination for visitors across the globe. As president of its foundation, he helped make the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games a tremendous success for Kentucky. We wish him all the best in the next chapter of his life.”
Under Nicholson’s leadership, the Kentucky Horse Park hosted the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Nicholson spearheaded a multi-year effort by the Kentucky Horse Park, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, local government and private partnerships to win the United States’ bid to host the World Equestrian Games. The Games had never been held outside of Europe. Nicholson served on the board of the World Games 2010 Foundation, which organized the event, televised itinternationally to 500 million viewers and had an economic impact of $201.5 million on the state’s economy.
Nicholson was named the Chronicle’s 2010 Overall Horseman of the Year along with Jane Beshear, Jamie Link and John Long, for bringing the WEG to the United States.
Nicholson has overseen the KHP’s expansion to include $80 million in capital improvement projects, including the 5,500-seat Alltech Arena; the 7,300-seat Rolex Stadium; new stabling barns; a new $10 million, 8,500-square-foot museum wing; and numerous new buildings within the park’s National Horse Center—a collection of national, regional and state equine organizations.
Nineteen of the current 33 National Horse Center tenants have relocated their national headquarters to the park or expanded their offices during Nicholson’s tenure, including the governing body for most equestrian sport in the country, the U.S. Equestrian Federation. The USEF completed a move to the Kentucky Horse Park in 1999 after being recruited away from New York City, where it had resided since being founded there as the American Horse Shows Association in 1917.
In 2008, Nicholson’s leadership led to the park receiving an Eclipse Award, the highest honor in the Thoroughbred industry, from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, National Turf Writers Association and the Daily Racing Form.
Nicholson has served on many boards of directors, including the Bluegrass Hospitality Association, Bluegrass Sports Commission, Bluegrass Tomorrow, Commerce Lexington, Fayette Alliance, Kentucky Farm Bureau Equine Advisory Committee, Midway College Sports Management Advisory Committee, and ex officio for VisitLEX.
“The park is at the crossroads of a remarkable past and an extremely promising future,” said Nicholson, 54. “I am proud of the legacy I leave and am pleased to participate in a great and model transition, which will be the latest example of how the park has always tried to conduct business in a forward-thinking and exemplary manner.”