USA Alumni Conference 2017

One of the core principals of Godolphin Flying Start is the spirit of excellence. So, keeping this in mind the alumni conferences aim to provide continuing professional development opportunities to the graduates as well as strengthening their network. To date there are almost 150 who are working in 5 continents in all aspects of the industry.

This is the second alumni conference, following on from the inaugural conference held in Cambridge University in 2015. Back then the theme was ‘Masterclass: Branding and Reputation’, so as it moves Stateside this time round, the theme was ‘Masterclass: People and Power’. The idea was built off feedback from several the 51 USA based alumni.

From nine o’clock delegates started arriving at the 21C Museum Hotel venue here in the heart of downtown Lexington. It didn’t take long before the room was filled with the buzz of excitement as old friends reconnected and new friends were introduced. Many of today’s delegates have travelled from a variety of locations here in the USA and some even travelling from Europe (Ireland, England and France) to be here with us.

Just after nine thirty, Clodagh Kavanagh got the proceedings underway, welcoming and thanking everyone for coming. She highlighted the theme of today, ‘people’, and the relevance of understanding your team, having a positive mindset and knowing how to influence as necessary for progress in any role in any aspect of the industry. Most importantly, she thanked his highness Sheikh Mohammed for providing the amazing opportunity that is Flying Start before handing over to our MC for the day, Jocelyn Targett.

Session 1 (Be Your Own Boss) got underway with a discussion with our first speaker Susan Kellogg. She began describing an attribute of success that crosses all industries and none more so than the equine industry. Having a strong and deep passion for the industry is immensely important as she related how it helps us to persist through the long hours and helps us is becoming resilient to failures and/or the bumps along the road. Some of the points raised included engaging with everything, reinventing oneself and taking the risk in challenging oneself. One point that personally resonated with me was her point of slowing down. Sometimes we get caught up in the task at hand, failing to understand how we appear outwardly. She drew comparison between herself and one of the current trainees, having advised him to slow down, relax and enjoy the road, helping towards a more successful process.


Susan broached the topic of leadership, with the team that surrounds you having a significant impact of the success or failure of your ventures, she cited the age old saying of being “only as important as your team”. This built on what she mentioned earlier whereby she hires into her weaknesses and requires a level of self-awareness that allows you to acknowledge those weaknesses. She explained the value of having someone to bounce ideas off.

When opened to the floor, Darren Fox posed the question of keeping a career fresh by either changing jobs or roles within those positions to which Susan stressed the importance of not ending up with a CV that reflects a career that hopped between companies, but rather challenging oneself within roles.

Delegate Jenny Barnett really challenged Susan, when trying to identify what Susan considers to be some of the key points to growth. Once again, the response reverted to the people of the business, “having a team that is open to change” being given the pole position of growth. Interestingly she separated listening to employees from employees being heard.

Unsurprisingly, it was an Irish man, Gerry Duffy, who went off schedule when joining Susan to delve a little deeper as well as getting a giggle out of delegates from his anecdote of his debut in skinny jeans. But on a serious note he reverted to one of Susan’s initial points on passion. Susan explained that her passion comes from an inner drive to win and the passion doesn’t always necessarily have to come from work but can sometimes come from passions outside a career.

After a session that generated plenty of interest and though provoking questions, the session concluded with Jocelyn regaining his mic from Gerry.

Session 2 (Be Your Own Team Coach) began after a brief break. Samantha Couch was our speaker for the session and she holds the position of ‘Director of People and Culture’ at Big Ass Solutions here in Lexington. Immediately, I think that is was the job title that most generated interest amongst delegates. She began with explaining the value of millennials in the workforce. Hearing some of Samantha’s theories coming from a HR position added some ideas for bridging the gap.

We saw some common threads between both Samantha and Susan when she reverted to the topic of passion. She explained how it’s the company’s philosophy to understand what makes the employees tick. By exploiting this and taking into the work place provides the opportunity to improve morale and consequentially productivity. She added that it is essential to allow staff to know the end goal and effectively define what “winning” is from the businesses perspective as well as making the path to it both enjoyable and challenging.


When opened to the floor delegate Kate Grimwade, following by the example set by Gerry Duffy, joined Samantha on stage. Kate was joined by Conor Foley when diving straight in with the most prominent issue in our industry, working hours. In an industry that is so labour intensive, she questioned keeping employees interested and engaged through the long hours and potentially mundane roles. Samantha recounted her moto and that of the company of “if not for them, none of us”. Ensuring that employees feel valued and instrumental in the success of the organisation is of the utmost importance. Apart from the obvious extrinsic motivation of pay related bonuses, it is equally important to attain employee buy-in to the business.

Kate reverted to the issues that she has experienced in manging millennials and the opposing views and ideologies the either sides hold, to which Samantha encouraged her to work with the millennials rather than questioning and fighting it. While this poses a challenge for employers and managers, it certainly is worth placing trust in them.

Natalie Heitz addressed the issue of dealing with problems in millennials, something that can sometimes be ignored. Samantha explained how the traditional annual review is no longer suitable and managers need to go further by having more regular meetings, dealing with issues as they arise and preventing from them festering or escalating.

As the session came to an end I thought back on one point Samantha made, the lack of fear that millennials have. It’s something that managers need to get their head around.

Session 3 was interestingly titled Energizer Session. With no one, including Clodagh and Joe knowing what Kate Hardy had planned for us, I think that they were pleasantly surprised. I’m sure the people of Lexington were unsure what conference was in town when they saw many Flying Start alumni and trainees taking to the streets of Lexington for the Kate’s scavenger hunt. I’m sure that this will prove to be one of the highlights of the day and luckily the weather proved perfect and she didn’t have to revert to ‘plan B’.

Session 4 (Creating a Culture of Innovation) got under way after 2pm and this time Aidan Connolly, Chief Innovation Officer at Alltech, took to the floor. He outlined some of the perceptions from outside the industry which were of and traditional one that is slow to change. He identified that with a principal funding source of betting from individuals who are not necessarily in the industry we need to be aware of the perceptions that the industry has in the public’s mind including the complicated issue of ‘drugs’. But this raises the bigger question as Aidan did, “are you producing the best horses or are you in the entertainment industry?”. This is one that certainly require more thought from all of us.

He posed us another question when asking “do you still want to work on a horse farm?” and Jenny Barnett gave a very honest answer when acknowledging that the expected answer nowadays may very well be a ‘no’, explaining that it is difficult as a business in the industry to do everything to retain people. She added that it may not be possible to create the career paths that employees are looking for. There is no easy answer to this question and it is in line with the points that Kate Grimwade made in one of the earlier sessions and something that alumni associations need to be constantly discussing.

“If we don’t adapt, we die”, these were the words that Aidan spoke when encouraging us to think and innovate in our activities. He introduced several innovative ideas that are coming to the market and while some might not appeal to all of us, they do highlight that there are breaks away from tradition and these are progressions in technology, some of which we may be adapted to integrate into our programs. This topic was revisited when opened to the floor when delegate Dean Roethemeier questioned if some of the technology was too advanced for the demands of its users, and this migrated to Aidan suggesting that we interact with the technology companies to help them to tailor these products to meet our requirements.

Aidan continued by talking about the process involved in business development. He turned the typical method around, encouraging us to start with identifying where we are now and finishing with the path that we need to be on to get where we want to go, knowing exactly where you want to go in-between.

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He provided a method of problem solving when telling us that the key is to slow our brain speed down and this can be achieved by doing relaxing tasks even as simple as mowing the lawn.

Once again Gerry Duffy was prominent in questioning our speaker and he debated that some of task in equine industry don’t lend themselves to automation to which Tom Morley responded by reminding us the importance of tread mills in training now, reducing the pressure on having as many work riders.

Session 5 (Power and Influence) got under way just before 3pm and Jim Prescott from Prescott Group LLC joined us to discuss public affairs and their potential impact on your business. For this session we had a panel consisting of Lisa Jane Graffard and Bill Lear, Chairman Emeritus of Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLC, One of the main points that he raised is that we are in a climate of opposition whereby we can face opposition to our activities from a variety of angles and this le don to the question, “What opposition do you face?”, to which both Kate Hardy and Darren Fox responded simultaneously with “PETA”, reminding us of the challenges that our industry faces from such organisations that could possibly destroy it.

Jim continued by discussing public consent. With our industry and the racing side being one that is to the fore regarding having some public consent that allows it to continue, it is in a venerable state whereby it’s future has the potential to be determined by people who are involved in it. Consequentially, it is up to us to be proactive in changing the public perception that has come out of controversy on our racetracks. Jim added that no one is going to stand up on our behalf and defend us.

Discussion with our panel begun with the issue of lobbyists and Jim stressed the value of hiring professionals to help and strengthen the cause. Bill expressed the value of building relationships with the representative bodies.

Conor Foley questioned who is responsible for impacts here when industries like Illinois are torn apart to which he responded that we the active participants are. He recounted as so many of us have that horses are in our DNA, but it’s declining in almost every jurisdiction other than Hong Kong. He added that it is the same sport as it was 40 years ago, and there are challenges that we haven’t overcome and one of which is the failure to make advances in the gaming that we provide to the public. Lisa ended that part of the discussion, stating racing is an expensive type of gaming to put on.


This afternoons session really came alive when it came to the issue of medications. The panel was led to this issue by delegate, Natalie Heitz who expressed frustration with the time associated with trying to achieve any sort of legislative change. As we all know, medication has been a long-time issue. Bill added that medication is not only an issue for integrity of competition, but also gambling. Tom Morley joined in with his feeling as an Englishman training here, adding that he feels that it is ingrained in American’s that medication isn’t an issue. This stirred a response from Bo Rainbow, who expressed the view that the USA consistently gets blamed over the medication issue when other nations use it equally if not more. Either way, this is an issue that needs to be tackled in both areas. When tackling the issue of medications, we typically revert to the issues regarding variations across states.

Gerry Duffy has been a great contributor throughout todays proceedings and he suggested in this the final session on dealing with the disconnect between industry professionals and the policy makers. This is the formation of an association whose sole purpose is explaining our purpose to theses bodies. Scott Calder added that attempts have been made before but did not seem to be executed very well.

Lisa Jane Graffard brought the session to a close on the key point that one of the most influential activities that we could do is making valuable contributions to the community that surrounds us. This will hopefully gain some much-needed supporters to our industry.

April 7, 2017, 21 C, Lexington, KY Godolphin Flying Start Alumni Conference