Farewell Letter from KHP Executive Director John Nicholson

The following farewell letter from John Nicholson has been published in the 2014 edition of the Kentucky Horse Park Discover Horses magazine, and is being shared with you out of courtesy as John nears retirement as the park’s Executive Director on April 30. Please join us in celebrating 17 successful years. What an incredible tenure! 

After 17 exhilarating years, I will retire as Executive Director of the Kentucky Horse Park at the start of the 2014 season. I leave not only proud of all that has been accomplished, but also with deeply felt gratitude for all the people and horses who have made these years so profoundly wonderful.

Since making this announcement, I’ve experienced a constant stream of incredible memories. Many of these special moments hardly seem real.  But they WERE real, and tell the story of an incredible odyssey that ended with the Kentucky Horse Park as the top facility of its kind in the world.

The 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games, for example, was a decade-long effort, with many twists and turns that included a great deal of planning and many trips, both in the United States and to other countries, to promote the idea of a Kentucky Games and to build the relationships that finally made that happen. When we were awarded the Games by the Federation Equestre Internationale Bureau at its 2005 meeting in Bahrain, my call back to Kentucky was broadcast to a huge press conference led by Governor Ernie Fletcher, with hundreds of cheering people in attendance. What a surreal experience!

The next years were a breathless gallop of groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings which compressed a 10-year master plan into about two years. In the end, although we’d never hosted an event on that scale, we were ready for the Games and had the facilities the Kentucky Horse Park needed. The 16 days of the 2010 Games were both magical and a game-changer, not only for the park, but for Lexington, the Commonwealth of Kentucky and America's equestrian industry.

From the very beginning, there have been moments and occasions that are seared in my memory:  the entire experience of the “Imperial China” exhibition in 2000 ... the trips to China with Bill Cooke and the meetings with the Cultural Ministry ... the extraordinary access we had to the Emperor Qin Huang's Terracotta Army in Xian ... negotiating the deal with Chinese government officials in Beijing ... the incredible opening night with the Chinese Ambassador ... the fabulous gala with the Shanghai Acrobats.

The “Imperial China” exhibition was, at that time, the largest undertaking by the park and, in my opinion, paved the way for many monumental achievements in the years to come. The Kentucky Horse Park had found a place on the international stage and had made an unprecedented contribution to Kentucky's worldwide profile, as well as to the cultural landscape of the Commonwealth.

We reaffirmed our newfound confidence and continued our international presence in 2003 with the “All the Queen's Horses” exhibition, opened by Princess Anne. We had yet another amazing gala on opening night and another memorable exhibition.

So many other incredible chapters:  working with Walt Robertson, who led the effort to expand the park by 200 acres ... the huge push to recruit the American Horse Shows Association (now the United States Equestrian Federation) from New York City ... the tremendous growth of the summer hunter-jumper series ... and working under the leadership of Ted Bassett to save the Calumet trophies.

I will never forget the funeral for John Henry that was attended by hundreds of people, broadcast live by HRTV, and the eulogy I gave that day ... or the successful effort to have Cigar come to the Hall of Champions ... and the same when Alysheba came from Saudi Arabia ... the years we spent convincing the National Horse Show to come to the Bluegrass ... and the countless hours of testimony and relationship-building with the General Assembly that led to unprecedented capital investment, followed by a modern roadway system, major infrastructure improvements and, of course, the Rolex Stadium and the Alltech Arena.

I will forever recall traveling to Beverly Hills, along with many of the Kentucky Horse Park family, to accept an Eclipse Award for the park ... “Camp Kentucky” in Aachen, Germany, where 21 park employees shared three cottages for three weeks during the 2006 World Games ... the rapid expansion of the National Horse Center, which the United States Dressage Federation, the United States Hunter Jumper Association and so many others now call home, making Lexington truly the Horse Capitol of the World.

For me, the most special memories are of the countless hours of fun, love and togetherness I spent with my sons, Chris and Colin, who remain the great joy of my life.

And yet, with all the memories, what is, without question, the most unforgettable part of these years is the extraordinary people I have been privileged to work. I wish time and space would permit me to say something special about each one, but all should realize how grateful I am to have known them. Park veterans will know what I mean when I offer my heartfelt and eternal thanks to the R.K.s, the Toms, the Peggys, the Cathys, the Jamshids, the Charlies, the Renees and everyone who gave so much of themselves to this magnificent park. What we did, we did together.

I am grateful, as well, for the support we received from the Kentucky Horse Park Commission Chairs, the Cabinet Secretaries and everyone from the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation with whom I have served during these years. Thank you to Nina Bonnie, Cabby Boone, Walt Robertson, Tandy Patrick, Alston Kerr, the late Ann Latta, Jim Host, George Ward, Marcheta Sparrow and Bob Stewart. So many times these  leaders supported us in pursuing dreams and ideas that, at the time, may have seemed outlandish. On many occasions they gave us the space and latitude we needed to make these dreams come true. They all have shared in the momentous vision that was created for the Kentucky Horse Park, so much of which has come to fruition.

I am proud to have been a part of three administrations over the last 17 years. The administrations of Governor Paul Patton, Governor Ernie Fletcher and Governor Steve Beshear all made extraordinary contributions to the park’s growth, and I am grateful for this support, both public and personal.

Thanks also to my predecessor, friend and mentor Lee Cholak, whose 12 years of leadership laid the solid foundation for all we have been able to achieve. His presence is still felt.

Although circumstances do not permit me to say all I would like to say about all the people at the park who have become so special to me, I would like to acknowledge four people who remain as I leave.

While I managed the park all these years, Robin Cottle has had the unenviable and much more difficult task of managing me! She has been a fantastic executive assistant and also takes great care of all the employees, including me, by managing the park's employee benefits program. She remains a dear friend and I will always be grateful to her.

There are also three special employees who have given decades of their life to the park:  Bill Cooke, Mike Scales and Stephanie Gibson.  I can never thank them enough for not only their dedication, but also for the friendship and loyalty we have shared in very good times and in the other times, as well.

I am energized and excited about the new opportunities that lie ahead for me. While I am, of course, sad to be leaving, I will not cry that it is over. I will, instead, smile because it happened.

John Nicholson
Executive Director
Kentucky Horse Park
1997 - 2014