Nicholson Retiring from Kentucky Horse Park

Serving as executive director since June 1, 1997, he oversaw long period of growth.

John Nicholson, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park since June 1, 1997, announced his retirement effective April 30.

Nicholson, who made the announcement Jan. 15, is the longest-serving executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park in its 35-year history. He has served at its helm during its greatest period of growth, garnering world-wide recognition for the facility.

"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," Kentucky 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."

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, which are the world championships for eight equestrian disciplines, had never been held outside of Europe. Nicholson served on the board of the World Games 2010 Foundation which organized the event.

He oversaw the park'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.

One of his first actions as the park's executive director was playing a major role in raising more than $1.2 million from concerned citizens and racing fans, and securing an additional $1.5 million in state funding, to purchase the historic Calumet Farm trophy collection in 1998. The collection had been on loan to the park's International Museum of the Horse since 1982, but was scheduled to be auctioned as part of the farm's bankruptcy settlement. 

In 1997, the park was presented with an opportunity to host one of the largest exhibitions ever to come to the United States from China. Stipulating that no tax dollars would be used to fund the project, Nicholson led efforts in raising the necessary $1.2 million from the private sector to fund the exhibition, valued at $100 million. Imperial China: The Art of the Horse in Chinese History" opened in 2000 and was seen by more than 200,000 visitors.

In 2008, Nicholson's leadership led to the park receiving an Eclipse Award, the highest honor in the Thoroughbred industry. In 2010, he received the prestigious Equine Industry Vision Award from the American Horse Publications, an award that recognizes outstanding leadership, creativity and meritorious contributions in the equine industry, and he accepted the USEF's Sallie Busch Wheeler Trophy on behalf of the park, which honors distinguished service in equestrian sport. In 2011, Nicholson was named one of the Chronicle of the Horse magazine's "Overall Horsemen of the Year."

"The park is at the crossroads of a remarkable past and an extremely promising future," said Nicholson. "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."