The Kentucky Horse Park is no stranger to controversy.
A change at the top of Kentucky’s state government has brought back familiar names, and familiar acrimony as well.
Here’s the background: Democrat Steve Beshear served as governor from 2007 to 2015, a period that covered the park’s rise to global visibility as host of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
He was succeeded by Republican Matt Bevin, who did not have the former governor’s direct equestrian connections (Jane Beshear, Steve Beshear’s wife, is a rider and one of his two sons, Jeffrey, is a veterinarian married to a three-day eventer).
Beshear had appointed his wife to the Kentucky Horse Park Commission and named her friend, Alston Kerr, as its chairman shortly before he left office. After Bevin was inaugurated, he removed Kerr from the chairmanship and Jane Beshear from her position.
The new governor moved to reorganize the commission and cut its size. The Kentucky Legislature passed a bill to that effect in response to a February 2017 financial audit, which found “questionable management practices, and potential conflicts of interest” in connection with the Park.
But since November 2019, when Steve Beshear’s son, Andy Beshear, defeated Bevin for the governorship, the saga has taken another turn. Last month, Kerr was reinstated by Andy Beshear as chair of the commission.
Republican state Sen. Damon Thayer was not pleased to find Kerr heading the panel again.
In response to a question from Horse Sport about that development, the legislator stated, “I am very concerned that the individual in charge of the park during a time when a state audit uncovered poor management practices is back at the helm.
“I’ll be watching park operations closely and if any of the previous practices are adopted, will call for a fresh audit to hold the new committee chair accountable.”
According to the Kentucky Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, when Bevin served as governor, the park was reported to have operating losses of $10 million in 2018 and $8 million in 2019.
Kerr, who was not chairman during those years, noted that while the figures are accurate, they involve “governmental accounting.
“It isn’t an actual loss,” she said, explaining it includes such items as “depreciation and all the state prerequisite expenses given to every agency.” As an indicator, however, “it does tell the overall health of your agency.”
But in her view, the picture is bigger than just figures in a ledger.
“What is profitability? Is it filling the hotels, grocery stores, restaurants; the gas (bought by)…the people who come to the park, or is it only a P&L (profit and loss) that cannot take into effect what you return to the community?”
She noted, “There are still those in state leadership that just have it out for the Beshear administration. It’s a shame to make the Horse Park the target of their animosity.”
So here’s the goal: “I hope in the next four years, we can take this park and pull it out of the political arena and keep it as the number one equine facility in the world.”
Times have changed and that won’t be a slam-dunk, she observed, even though the park hosts many high-profile competitions, including the 5-star Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event.
“We as the Horse Park used to be one of the few places that were considered for world competitions,” Kerr said.
“Now it goes East, West, North, South.We have a ton of competition that was not here four years ago,” she continued, citing the growth of such entities in the U.S. as the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina (host of the 2018 WEG), facilities in Oklahoma City and the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida, slated to open in 2021.
“Everybody needs to hustle to keep the park at the top of its game,” she advised.
A plus in that direction is the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation, which “helps enhance the park” in the words of its chairman, Clay Green, noting it recently honored volunteers for their 161,000 hours of work.
The foundation, which oversees the Museum of the Horse, bolsters the operations of the park with money for projects such as beautification and improving the stables.
“We are world class, but we want to be the best in class; the foundation is there to support that mission,” said Green.
Kerr noted the 1,224 acres of the Kentucky Horse Park offer an enormous advantage.
“We have the land to walk over for these horses to see a vista and graze on grass.” That, she maintained, is lacking “at any other equine facility. That is still our best calling card for equestrians who are in any facility for any length of time.”
Going back to her previous stint as head of the commission, she said, “There were some things we were trying to do that we will go back to that could make the park in the black.”
She feels it’s too soon for her to speak on the record about what they might be, however.
In January 2017, the Commission voted to withdraw from consideration for hosting the WEG in 2022, expressing concern about staging of the Games and the potential conflict that hosting would create with long-term goals, including limitations on potential Horse Park-generated revenue opportunities.
Looking further in the future, however, another WEG may not be out of the question–especially since there are few facilities that can host all the disciplines, or want to do so.
“We could think about it. I truly think the city of Lexington would love to see it come back,” said Kerr, “but it takes the support of the state of Kentucky 100 percent. We learned so much from last time. The Kentucky Horse Park could still handle it, and other major competitions as well.”
But first, she pointed out, “There’s a lot to be done to bring championships to the park. We’re going to reconnect with what made this Horse Park exceptional, and all of that comes down to our partners,” she continued, mentioning the importance of “a lot of great partners in our national agencies that are (based) there and in our show managers.”
Eventually, Kerr suggested, “I would like us to find the model of a public/private partnership which took us out of the political game.”
As an example, she cited the Central Park Conservancy in New York, a private non-profit that manages the park under a contract with the city.
With that type of arrangement, she pointed out, the park would be “still a state asset, but no longer a…political volleyball.”
~ Nancy Jaffer