Keeneland President and CEO Bill Thomason today announced he will retire at the end of 2020 after a decade with Keeneland Association, including eight years at the helm of the global racing and sales company. Shannon Bishop Arvin, who as a partner with Stoll Keenon Ogden (SKO) has served as corporate counsel to Keeneland since 2008 and as Secretary and Advisory Member of Keeneland’s Board of Directors since 2015, has been named by the Keeneland Trustees to succeed Thomason. Arvin will serve as the incoming President-elect beginning Sept. 1 and will officially transition to President and CEO on Jan. 1, 2021. She becomes Keeneland’s eighth President and the first woman to serve in that position.
“Bill Thomason has led Keeneland with passion and integrity and with a commitment to its customers and a devotion to the Keeneland team,” Keeneland Trustee Everett Dobson said. “People who care as much as Bill are what makes Keeneland so incredibly special. He leaves a tremendous legacy of service to Keeneland, the horse industry and the community, and his accomplishments have indelibly shaped the future of our sport.”
“I’ve never met anyone who has more love for Keeneland or more respect for its traditions than Bill Thomason,” Keeneland Trustee Bill Lear said. “He has demonstrated both qualities in everything he has done as President, and we take this opportunity to thank him for serving Keeneland so well.”
“It has been the honor of a lifetime to be part of the Keeneland family,” Thomason said. “I feel privileged to work alongside people who share a commitment to always put the best interest of the horse first and to exceed our customer’s expectations. Keeneland was founded upon these principles, which continue to guide our operations to this day. Shannon’s life and work experiences intertwine with that philosophy, and I look forward to her leadership of Keeneland for years to come.”
The appointment of Arvin was a unanimous decision by the Keeneland Trustees.
“Bill notified us last year of his wish to spend more time with his family and his plans for retirement,” Keeneland Trustee Seth Hancock said. “We are grateful to have had ample time to thoughtfully select his successor. We have all known Shannon for years through her service to Keeneland and numerous boards in the racing industry. We approached her to see if there was an interest on her part, and I am happy to say there was. Our wide-ranging discussions with her that followed confirmed our initial judgement: Shannon’s leadership, professionalism, the respect she has earned within the horse industry, her intimate knowledge of Keeneland’s core businesses and her vision for Keeneland’s future made her the clear choice to become the next President.”
Through her work with SKO’s Lexington office, where she has practiced since 2002, Arvin has represented Thoroughbred owners and prominent industry organizations in Kentucky and around the world, among them Keeneland, Breeders’ Cup Ltd., Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. She also serves on the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Foundation Board of Directors and is a member of The Jockey Club.
“I have had the honor of working with Shannon for many years, and her expertise and knowledge of the Thoroughbred industry and her impressive leadership abilities make her a great choice for Keeneland,” Breeders’ Cup President and CEO Drew Fleming said. “Breeders’ Cup has a long-standing bond with Keeneland, and we look forward to working with Shannon, Bill and their entire team to not only make the Breeders’ Cup World Championships a resounding success in 2020 but also to innovate and grow our sport going forward. Today’s announcement is a major win for the future of racing.”
Arvin brings to her new role a unique perspective of Keeneland’s rich history and what the iconic track means to horsemen, fans and Central Kentucky. Her grandfather W.T. “Bish” Bishop was the first General Manager of Keeneland when the track opened in 1936. Her father, the late William T. “Buddy” Bishop III, grew up at Keeneland, living in an apartment next to the Clubhouse. Buddy Bishop’s lifelong service to Keeneland included positions as Director, Secretary, Trustee and Counsel. He was also a partner at SKO and worked with his daughter at the firm until his passing in 2008.
“Through her legal career at SKO and her service on numerous industry boards and community organizations, Shannon has earned international respect for her wise counsel and love of the Thoroughbred industry,” Dobson said. “Her deep roots with Keeneland and appreciation for its mission will allow her to lead with the same integrity and enthusiasm she has brought to every organization she has served.”
“I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to serve as President and CEO of Keeneland,” Arvin said. “I am also thankful for my experience at Stoll Keenon Ogden these past 18 years. I appreciate the trust and confidence placed in me by my clients and my law partners, and I look forward to continuing to work with them in a different capacity.
“I have a deep love and passion for Keeneland and it is a tremendous honor to lead this organization and work alongside this amazing team,” she said. “By building on the foundation laid by Bill Thomason and those who came before him, and with a continued focus on integrity, innovation and safety, we will further the mission of Keeneland and ensure the future of this sport.”
Thomason’s legacy one of advancement and innovation at Keeneland and within the horse industry
Bill Thomason navigated Keeneland through a decade of substantial growth and change in the Thoroughbred industry. Keeneland successfully hosted the 2015 Breeders’ Cup which generated a nearly $70 million economic impact for Lexington, and he negotiated the event’s return to Keeneland in 2020. Keeneland achieved record Spring and Fall Meet attendance and handle, highlighted by the more than $25 million wagered on last year’s Toyota Blue Grass Day and the more than $160 million wagered during the 2019 Fall Meet. The Shadwell Turf Mile (G1) and Toyota Blue Grass (G2) were elevated to $1 million stakes. On the sales front, Keeneland further expanded its global outreach, resulting in gross sales of more than $627 million last year; launched the Keeneland Digital Sales Ring, the first online sales auction in North America; and undertook a multimillion-dollar renovation of the barn area to better showcase offerings for Keeneland auctions.
Under Thomason’s leadership, Keeneland was a founding member of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition. As a passionate leader in the area of equine safety and welfare, Thomason was integral in initiating the hiring of an Equine Safety Director at Keeneland and championing race track surfaces research and testing, racing and sales medication reforms and industry initiatives to promote the betterment of the sport. He has served as chairman of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, a member of The Jockey Club, on the board of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, University of Kentucky Gluck Equine Research Foundation and University of Kentucky Equine Analytical Chemistry Laboratory Advisory Board. Like Keeneland, each of these organizations has realized the benefits of Thomason’s leadership, integrity and his undeniable devotion to the safety of the horse and the future of the Thoroughbred industry.
“Keeneland and the Thoroughbred industry have been very fortunate to have Bill Thomason as President and CEO of Keeneland for the past eight years,” Fleming of Breeders’ Cup said. “Under Bill’s leadership, Keeneland implemented numerous significant initiatives that will leave a lasting positive impact on the Thoroughbred business, including Keeneland’s hosting of the groundbreaking 2015 Breeders’ Cup and being a co-founder of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition. It has been a real pleasure to work closely with Bill, and we look forward to continuing to work with him in the future.”
Keeneland’s outreach during Thomason’s tenure expanded beyond traditional business lines, most significantly with the track’s historic partnerships with Red Mile and Churchill Downs on historical gaming and simulcasting facilities. Keeneland Hospitality was developed to elevate the on-site culinary experience for patrons and to deliver top-class special events. Retail operations branched out to include online sales, a remodel of The Keeneland Shop and the opening of Keeneland Mercantile to establish a presence for Thoroughbred racing in downtown Lexington. Customer service reached new levels with construction of a Welcome Center, creation of a Keeneland Tour Program and participation in the formation of the popular Horse Country.
Keeneland also focused on its philanthropic mission by boosting such special events as Make-A- Wish Day and College Scholarship Day, expanding the charitable aspects of the Keeneland Kids Club, launching Keeneland Library’s Oral History Project and strengthening its partnership with Maker’s Mark on a commemorative bottle series that has generated millions of dollars for Central Kentucky organizations and the horse industry. Keeneland collaborated with Cross Gate Gallery to create the Sporting Art Auction to benefit the Keeneland Foundation and with AC Entertainment to inaugurate the Railbird music festival.
During this period, Keeneland also was named among the best places to work by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Kentucky Society for Human Resource Management.
Arvin brings years of service to the Lexington community and the Thoroughbred industry
A Lexington native, Arvin has deep ties to the Central Kentucky community and the horse industry.
In addition to her aforementioned affiliations, Arvin currently serves as Secretary of Horse Country, Director of Kentucky Bank and Director of The Lexington School; is Chair and Director of Bluegrass Care Navigators (formerly Hospice of the Bluegrass) and is Past President of the Thoroughbred Club of America.
“Shannon is all in for Keeneland and for Lexington; she has a tremendous knowledge of and love for the community,” Juddmonte Farms General Manager Garrett O’Rourke said. “In my early days at Juddmonte, I worked very closely with her Dad, who I loved. She and her Dad are very much alike, both wise and smart, and that is the biggest compliment I could give her. But more than anything else, her history and her roots in Keeneland are what make it the absolute glove fit. It couldn’t be a more obvious or perfect choice, and I am delighted for her and for Keeneland.”
Arvin graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with a B.A. in Political Science, International Studies, with High Honors. She graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law in 2002.
Arvin and her husband, Will, have two daughters, Bishop and McCutchen.