Keeneland’s Wilson on Cultivating Relationships

Kyle Wilson began working for Keeneland as a sales associate in 2018, and moved into his current position as assistant director of sales development two years ago, working alongside the department’s director, Mark Maronde.

Wilson, a 39-year-old native of Toledo, Ohio, was introduced to the Thoroughbred industry through his grandfather, owner William J. Lageman, who was an active buyer at Keeneland and raced his stable primarily on the East Coast. Wilson remembers making the drive from Ohio with his parents to attend his first Keeneland September Yearling Sale when he was in grade school. 

While Wilson’s studies at the University of Kentucky (foreign language/international economics) didn’t ultimately align with his chosen career path, living in Lexington during his college years certainly gave him valuable exposure to an industry he had long loved.

In advance of the Nov. 8 start of Keeneland’s nine-day November Breeding Stock Sale and its Nov. 17 Horses of Racing Age Sale, Wilson spoke to BloodHorse MarketWatch about his passion for his job and how the earlier connections he made prior to coming to Keeneland have continued to serve him well.

MarketWatch: What was your first job in the industry?

Kyle Wilson (KW): Working for Francis and Barbara Vanlangendonck of Summerfield Sales. It was probably the 2004 or 2005 September sale. Grandpa had bought a horse or two off of Francis and we had got to know him.

Sales pay is good pay for a college student. I figured I would give it a shot. I was topping the horses off, raking the shedrow, and hauling muck sacks. I found myself really enjoying it. At that point, I figured if I enjoyed dragging around muck sacks and getting up at 4:30 in the morning, and rubbing horses, I should probably give this a shot. It’s not for everybody, but it felt like it would work for me.

MW: As a 2009 graduate of Godolphin Flying Start, what were your biggest takeaways from the program?

KW: The best thing I took from Godolphin Flying Start is the people I was able to meet. It was a lifetime compressed into two years. It’s a relationship game as much as anything. The doors that were opened—totally based on Sheikh Mohammed’s generosity through the Flying Start program—was the most valuable thing I took away.

MW: How did your prior jobs at Bradley Thoroughbreds, Three Chimneys, and WinStar prepare you for your work at Keeneland?

KW: I took something from every one of those jobs and learned something in every one of those jobs on top of meeting the people I needed to meet to be valuable to Keeneland.

A lot of the people I did business with in all three of those places are the customers that are bringing horses to our September and November sales. Through selling seasons (for Three Chimneys and WinStar), and working for Pete (Bradley), I came to Keeneland with relationships and knowledge of the industry that I feel was valuable and maybe necessary to be successful in the role that I am in now.

MW: In your position as Keeneland’s assistant director of sales development, what are your duties?

KW: It’s recruitment-heavy with regards to horses and people for all of our sales. Then, always looking for new ways to make money for Keeneland, to put it very simply.

For example, the April sale that started in 2009 as a 2-year-old sale…COVID kind of ended the 2-year-old sale. We started again after that with a Horses of Racing Age Sale in 2021. We did about $2.5 million in gross sales that year. In 2022, we did almost $5.4 million, and this year almost $7 million.

We sold an Upstart share in 2022 for $450,000, and that was the first time in a while that somebody had sold a share on the open market. You look at November last year, we sold the interest in Flightline ($4.6 million).

So, we’re trying to find new ways to bring in business while also maintaining our established revenue stream.

We have to find the right kind of product and then we have to make sure that there are people to buy that product. It’s both ends. We’re facilitating a deal. We take a commission from this, but we have to earn that 5%.

MW: Do you think the strong market trends seen at this year’s yearling sales will translate to Keeneland November?

KW: I’m going into the sale with a fair amount of positivity. I think racing in Kentucky, in particular, is very healthy, and actually, all over the country. Prize money is very good. It makes sense to own a horse. There are a lot of young and exciting stallions out there that people are going to want to be a part of.

MW: What type of growth have you seen in the horses-of-racing-age market during your time at Keeneland?

KW: You can look at our April sale and see the way it has grown. People are hungry for racehorses. It’s really exciting. There is a desire and hunger to own horses in America right now. If you have something that looks like it will run on and do well, you’re going to get paid for it.

By Karen M Johnson – Bloodhorse