What are your biggest business concerns surrounding COVID-19?
Our No. 1 priority is ensuring the health and safety of our employees and people coming onto our grounds at Keeneland. Our general office team has been working remotely, but our grounds, building services, and racetrack crews have been on-site every day to maintain essential operations. We also have horses stabled at Keeneland, and we have worked closely with trainers to maintain the health and well-being of those frontline employees who are caring for the horses. Horse racing is a 24/7 job. Many of our industry employees simply cannot work remotely and we must do everything to protect them.
Keeneland annually holds two race meets (in April and October) and four live auctions, the two most important of those sales falling in September and November. We were also the host site for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, November 6–7, 2020.
Keeneland, especially, is a social venue. The founders created Keeneland in 1936 to be a model racetrack where people could come out and enjoy the beautiful grounds and horse racing. We miss our fans and can’t wait for the day we can welcome them back to Keeneland.
Keeneland also is unique from other racetracks in that we reinvest our revenue from race meets in the horse industry and the community.
Keeneland also is unique from other racetracks in that we reinvest our revenue from race meets in the horse industry and the community. Revenue from admissions, food and beverage, and on-track and remote wagering fund purse money for racing and maintain our operations.
The COVID-19 lockdown that began in mid-March forced us to cancel our Spring Race Meet, which was set for April. That was a tough blow for Keeneland, the horse industry, and the Central Kentucky community. As athletes, horses need to race to keep their conditioning, and tracks across the country were closed. The local community also relies on the dollars spent on hotels, restaurants, retail, rental cars, etc., generated during Keeneland’s race meets.
Fortunately, we were able to work with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and other Kentucky tracks to conduct a one-week Summer Meet in July. Even though the race meet was briefer and held without spectators, fans bet more than $63M via remote wagering on Keeneland racing. The Summer Meet also enabled horsemen to compete for purse money at a time when very few tracks were open.
This year, we concluded our 12-day September Yearling Sale, the largest thoroughbred sale in the world, and one that is critical to the health of the global horse industry. The sale was closed to the public and conducted under strict COVID-19 protocols. However, the fact that we were able to hold the sale as scheduled is incredible in itself given the many thoroughbred sales canceled or postponed in recent months. Trade was steady and the auction produced solid results, highlighted by the sale of 15 yearlings for $1M or more and gross sales of more than $238M. It was a challenging environment for everyone doing business, but the industry’s major buyers participated and there was definitely interest and money for horses that “ticked all the boxes.”
We also announced that both our Fall Meet and Breeders’ Cup World Championships would be closed to the public, though we’re happy that the Breeders’ Cup will return to Keeneland in 2022 so we can provide fans the world-class celebration such an event deserves. Keeneland’s Fall Meet opened with our signature Fall Stars Weekend, when many of the country’s top horses make their final starts before the season-end Breeders’ Cup. The competitive quality of racing at Keeneland attracts interest from fans across the country and we offer a number of options for them to wager remotely.
The two-week November Breeding Stock Sale, the industry’s most important sale of its kind that began November 9, was also conducted under the same health and safety protocols as the September Sale.
What is your current business strategy for dealing with the situation?
We’ve made a number of adjustments both on the racing and sales fronts to engage our race fans and our buyers who are not able to be physically on-site.
For the Summer Meet, we successfully launched a Keeneland at Home campaign that offered various elements via our social media platforms. Again, Keeneland is a very social event for the local community. We provided fans the means to recreate their favorite Keeneland race-day traditions and foods at home and raised awareness of the various watch and wager options available to them.
Buyers from across North America and some 50 foreign countries have attended our sales in past years. Given travel limitations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew many of those clients would not be able to attend the sale in person this year. To accommodate them, we expanded our remote-bidding capabilities in two ways.
First, we expedited the development and implementation of our online bidding technology to make that option a reality for the September Sale. We recorded in excess of 1,700 bids online for gross sales of over $12M during the September Sale, and we anticipate that as buyers develop a comfort level with the technology, that sector of the market will continue to grow.
Second, we expanded our existing phone-bidding operations.
We also increased the number of bidding locations on the sales grounds to allow buyers to socially distance.
A very important aspect of buying horses is the ability to physically inspect them in advance of the sale. To assist those buyers working remotely, we further enhanced the online September Sale catalog to offer walking videos of yearlings, comments from consignors about their yearlings, and links to each consignor’s website. We know videos can’t take the place of a hands-on inspection, but these videos offer a first look for buyers who can then dispatch representatives to look at those horses they are interested in.
How do you think things will look in your industry a year from now?
As Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” As with many industries, a silver lining to the pandemic is that some of the innovations and adjustments we’ve made, and new operational aspects we’ve put in place, like offering online bidding at the sales, will become permanent enhancements to our operations.
What have you learned from other difficult times in the past?
I am consistently in awe of the resiliency and optimism of people who work throughout the horse industry. These traits have seen our sport through challenging times in the past, and I believe it will get us through this pandemic. If you make your career in the horse industry, you understand highs and lows because it’s part of everyday life. This is hard work. But those who choose it are passionate about their horses and their profession. They plan for the long term and they are always looking for “blue skies.” It’s what keeps us going. I am cognizant that Keeneland’s sales were borne out of a crisis—during World War II, horses couldn’t travel to New York to be auctioned, so we sold them right here in Lexington. I’d love to think innovation like that could come from this very difficult time.
Safe–and entertained–at home: What business leaders are doing with their downtime
My planned mornings include a walk on the farm with my dog, Homer, and a cup of coffee. I’m most consistent about the cup of coffee but do my best to make time for the walk also. I have loved the extra time with my two girls during quarantine.
I watched all of Longmire through the pandemic and am now working through Schitt’s Creek.
Cookbooks! And New York Times Cooking recipes. I’ve also been reading The Power of Moments, which is insightful for life in general, but particularly with a focus on doing my best to raise our children with a busy professional life.
What are you doing to spend quality time with those you’re sheltering with?
Cooking, gardening, long walks, drinking wine.
What is the biggest purchase you made during COVID that made you happy?
French doors for our dining room that let us feel like we’re eating in the garden.
What are you doing to stay healthy mentally and physically?
Pure Barre classes from home, doing projects at our house, inside and out, that we’ve wanted to do for years.
Where are you dreaming of visiting once things are back to normal?
I am excited to get back to traveling. Our favorite spot is in Tulum, Mexico, and I’ve spent a lot of time dreaming about being back there with family and friends.