The idea of assuming a Presidency while the world is in the grips of a pandemic-induced state of chaos is not for the faint-hearted.
When Shannon Arvin stepped in to serve as incoming President-elect of Keeneland on September 1, 2020, Covid was still wreaking havoc across the globe. News of her appointment came just days before Keeneland staged its September Sale, an event that would set the tone for the autumn sales season to come, and weeks prior to its Breeders’ Cup meeting and November breeding stock auction.
As Covid continued to disrupt sales schedules and detract from prestigious race meetings worldwide, industry eyes rested upon Keeneland as a barometer of what could be expected for the rest of the year.
As it was, each of Keeneland’s sales were held as scheduled. Not only that, markets held steady and benefitted from foreign investment, with the company successful in its bid to get international buyers into the US and on to its sales grounds via a visa waiver system. The Breeders’ Cup, staged in front of a restricted audience, was also successful and an event where a semblance of normality made a welcome return.
Arvin officially succeeded Bill Thomason as Keeneland’s President and Chief Executive Officer on January 1 this year. The eighth President in the organisation’s history and the first woman to hold the post, Arvin’s term to date has been defined by an innovative outlook that is mindful of the company’s long-held traditions. New personnel have been added, changes have been made to the September Sale and the use of the digital sale ring accelerated.
It is fair to assume that Arvin would not be in this position today without a deep passion for the sport and Keeneland itself. It is the continuation of a family tradition that goes back to her grandfather W.T. ‘Bish’ Bishop, the track’s first general manager from 1937 to 1971. Her father, William T. ‘Buddy’ Bishop III, grew up at Keeneland, living in an apartment next to the track’s clubhouse and while he went on to practise law, he maintained close ties to Keeneland, his service to the organisation including positions as director, secretary, trustee and counsel.
“Arvin’s term to date has been defined by an innovative outlook that is mindful of the company’s long-held traditions”
Arvin followed her father into law, working alongside him at the Lexington firm Stoll Keenon Ogden from 2002 until his death in 2008. It was at Stoll Keenon Ogden, at which she became a partner, that Arvin forged relationships with a number of industry professionals, in particular Keeneland, to whom she served as corporate counsel and as a secretary and advisory member of Keeneland’s Board of Directors.
She also serves on the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Foundation Board of Directors and is a member of the American Jockey Club.
“Keeneland is very special to our community,” she says. “Dad grew up here – he lived in an apartment on the third floor of what is now our administration offices. And I worked here while I was still in high school, answering phones and things like that.
“It’s a beautiful spot and the great thing about Keeneland is that it is embraced by both the horsemen and fans. Obviously I grew up here but I have lived in other places as well and I don’t think there is anywhere really like it – it’s a very special place.
“I think my dad would be very pleased that I am here and carrying on its legacy.”
Arriving at the helm during such a difficult moment in Keeneland’s 85-year history was understandably not without its challenges. Indeed, Keeneland hasn’t emerged from Covid unscathed, with the pandemic contributing to a 28% drop in annual turnover to $449,289,000 from 2019 to 2020.
However, Arvin is keen to accentuate the positives and deservedly so, given that the world’s troubles prompted the industry to become more flexible in its outlook, the accelerated use of online bidding being a prime example.
“It’s been a really challenging year around the world – unprecedented,” she says. “Everyone has had to become more flexible and if there are any silver linings, it’s been the way that everyone has pulled together.
“Our sales went ahead on time and the markets held up. The horse industry are blue sky thinkers. I think we see that day everyday in what they do, and I think that optimism and resilience really showed through.
“It also meant that some things that we had been thinking about for a while were brought forward, including online bidding. There had been concerns that it would take away the electricity and the hustle and bustle of an auction, but then with everything going on, it became a case of us having to expedite those plans to introduce it.”
She adds: “Last year we traded $32 million online. From what we saw, several principals [of ownerships] became more engaged. Some were doing their own bidding using the online platform and that was good to see, those people becoming more involved in the bidding process.”
The digital sale ring, a platform for selling horses exclusively online, was launched in May 2020 and over the course of seven sales since has hit a high of $327,000 paid by St Elias Stables for the Juddmonte-sold Trapezium at the inaugural auction.
“I think my dad would be very pleased that I am here and carrying on its legacy”
“The digital sale ring is ever evolving and an important innovation finding its place in the market,” says Arvin. “One of the good things about it is that you don’t need a critical mass of horses to hold it. And as an owner, you don’t need to wait to sell at public auction, which are held at only certain times of the year. The horse doesn’t even have to be based in Kentucky. So I can see it becoming an important means of trading for horses in training going forward.”
She adds: “We have to be innovative. Keeneland has its traditions and I’m a traditionalist but I think we have to recognise that not all traditions have to be kept – those that aren’t can be honoured as memories. For me, it’s about taking the best traditions and moving forward, and by doing that I feel we can help grow the sport.”
Since the turn of the year new personnel have been added to the management team, with Gatewood Bell appointed to the position of Vice President of Racing, Irishman Tony Lacy as Vice President of Sales and fellow Irishman Cormac Breathnach as Director of Sales Operations.
Bell is a noted agent under his Cromwell Bloodstock banner while Lacy joins following lengthy stints as a partner in Kentucky consignment agency Four Star Sales and as North American representative for Arqana. Breathnach was formerly Director of Stallion Nominations at Airdrie Farm in Kentucky and succeeds Geoffrey Russell, who has retired after 25 years of service.
“Keeneland was established in 1936 by horsemen for horsemen and it is my belief that we should have horsemen in these roles,” said Arvin. “I have known Gatewood and Tony a really long time, and they are quality, respected horsemen. As is Cormac – he and Geoffrey are quite similar in that they’re hugely knowledgable about pedigrees, passionate about the sport and charismatic people to go with it. To place over 4,000 yearlings into a sale is a challenging puzzle and not something that everyone wants to do.”
Thus Keeneland heads into its most crucial period of the year full of steam. A record $6 million in purses spread over 17 days will be on offer during the track’s October meeting, which remains a highlight of the American racing scene by virtue of its 22 stakes races, among them ten Breeders’ Cup ‘win and you’re in’ events. Barring any Covid-related problems, the track has confirmed the welcome news that it expects to be able to host the meeting at full capacity.
On the auction side, the company is gearing up to host its marathon September Sale on September 13-24, for which a total of 4,036 yearlings have been catalogued.
Keeneland is understandably proud of its global appeal.
As far as Europe is concerned, its graduates regularly fly the flag on the elite stage – look no further than 2,000 Guineas winner Kameko and this year’s Classic-placed miler Colosseo. On the other side of the coin, its own European presence as a company consists of the sponsorship of the Group 1 Phoenix Stakes at the Curragh and Group 3 Princess Margaret Stakes at Ascot, with the prospect of further additions to the portfolio to come.
Overall, the participation of international players is crucial to the health of the September and November Sales, whether it be the high-spending Maktoum family or the collection of European breeze-up buyers that make the annual trip to participate within the middle to lower markets.
As such, ensuring their presence on the sale grounds last September was imperative. It required extensive dialogue with the United States Department of Homeland Security, but their efforts were successful with the result that approximately 120 yearlings went on to be imported out of the sale into Europe.
At the time of writing, further work was going on behind the scenes with the United States Department Of State to facilitate international travel for this year’s renewal and Arvin was “hopeful” that their efforts would again bear fruit.
“We are hopeful of welcoming international visitors to our sale again this year,” she says. “It’s another one of the challenges presented by Covid but we are working with [Kentucky senator] Mitch McConnell on it and he has a great understanding of the importance of international investment at our sales. Buyers from 52 different countries buy at Keeneland and we are very appreciative of their importance.”
Closer to home, Arvin is heartened by the strides made in recent years with regards to the future of the sport in North America. Keeneland sits at the forefront of the safety movement as a founding member of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition alongside the Breeders’ Cup, Churchill Downs, Del Mar, New York Racing Association and The Stronach Group. The coalition is pushing for a new and centralised set of standards within American racing with an array of reforms relating to the safety of horse and jockey as its primary focus.
“We have to be innovative. Keeneland has its traditions and I’m a traditionalist but I think we have to recognise that not all traditions have to be kept”
Currently, American racing is beholden to a fragmented system of regulations with little consistency on rulings across 38 jurisdictions.
However, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA), which was signed into American law by President Trump on December 28, is set to change all that as the driving force behind a central governing body; the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority has been created as an independent governing structure charged with proposing and enforcing health-and-safety standards, and will be overseen by the Federal Trade Commission.
HISA is set to be implemented by July 1, 2022, and remains a hot topic, being advertised as ushering in a “new, safer era” for the sport in one corner while attracting vehement opposition from another.
For Arvin, however, change can not come soon enough.
“HISA – it is time,” she says. “It’s the biggest change that I’ve seen in the sport.
“Currently we have a patchwork of regulations but HISA will allow us to move forward and instil confidence in the sport and its integrity. It has been a patchwork for so long and now is the time to move forward and find the right answer.”
Throughout its history, Keeneland has remained a leader within the horse business, right from the time of its construction under the visionary eye
of its founder Hal Price Headley during the 1930s. Arvin’s appointment over 80 years later ushered in a new chapter for the organisation, one where ambition and a sense of tradition dovetail neatly with each other. It’s a fresh outlook but one that should ensure Keeneland’s place as an international industry leader for years to come.
NEW LOOK TO SEPTEMBER YEARLING SALE
This year’s Keeneland September Sale opens on September 13 with a new, fresh look.
Book 1 has been condensed into two sessions starting at 1pm each day and for the first time ever will include a slot at the end of day two for those yearlings who failed to sell during the opening session.
Historically, a dark day has sat between Books 1 and 2, but this year it separates Books 2 and 3.
“Anytime you change something, some people will have concerns but the overall reaction has been positive,” says Shannon Arvin. “We listened to feedback from consignors and buyers, and took onboard input from the Consignors and Commercial Breeders Association – they were a big help. There were a lot of opinions but it was universally agreed that we should have more consistency with the sale’s schedule going forward so everyone knows where they stand and what to expect.”
The shift of the dark day now means that approximately 1,100 yearlings are catalogued to go under the hammer before the break in trading, something that allows consignors and buyers to regroup before heading into the later books. It’s a move that should allow the momentum of the sale to keep flowing, says Arvin.
The session for the RNA (reserve not attained) yearlings is an entirely new concept. It isn’t uncommon to see sales take time to gain momentum, particularly at the higher end of the market, and the introduction of an RNA session has the potential to support those who feel they may have been compromised by holding an early catalogue position.
“I think there’s always an anxiety from people of going first and this gives the consignors the opportunity to re-offer that horse if they want,” says Arvin. “We’re feeling our way with it. It could be that we end up with only two horses in the RNA section, but we’re absolutely fine with that.”
The sale concludes with a three-day Book 5 that ends on September 24.