David Switzer’s career in the horse business spans seven decades and it’s run the gamut, from starting out as a teenager working at a neighbor’s farm for 25 cents a day to working with state and federal lawmakers to draft legislation to benefit Kentucky’s signature industry.
Switzer’s seen plenty during those years, from the bloodstock booms and busts in the 1980s and 2000s to the terror of mare reproductive loss syndrome in the early 2000s to the formation of groups designed to make the industry more sustainable well beyond current decade.
And he’s certainly done plenty more. He’s worked on the racetrack, been an owner, breeder, seller, bloodstock agent and spent a lengthy stint in the insurance ends of the business. He retires from his executive director post at the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders August 1, turning over the reins to Chauncey Morris and leaving a lasting imprint on the industry.
Switzer recently sat down with This Is Horse Racing Managing Editor Tom Law to discuss his career, the highs and lows of the Thoroughbred industry and what retirement holds for the respected Kentuckian.
This Is Horse Racing: Let’s go back to those early days and your introduction to the horse business.
David Switzer: I started when I was 13 years old. My family lived on a street where there was an equine veterinarian, Dr. E. W. Thomas. Dr. Thomas had about five or six sons and two daughters and he purchased some property on Old Frankfort Pike that was a general agriculture farm. He put his boys to work and offered me the opportunity to work on that farm and to help develop it into a commercial breeding operation. That’s how I got started.
My parents had no involvement in the horse industry. My father was a general contractor and my mother was a domestic engineer, meaning she raised two boys. That’s how I initially got started.
I tell people what really caught me and got me thinking I wanted to do something in the horse industry at that young age was the first time I experienced the mating of a stallion and a mare. I was there the night that mare produced a foal. Then I, along with the other boys, in what was kind of like a 4-H project when you think about it, we raised that baby and took it to Keeneland for the September sale. We led that yearling into the sales ring and in less than three minutes it was sold and gone. That all kind of hooked me.
TIHR: What was next?
DS: I worked there every summer that I went to college, during spring and Christmas breaks. In college I majored in animal science with the idea that maybe I would go to vet school. That didn’t pan out. Uncle Sam got a little bit in the way, too, and after graduation I went into the service. When I returned from the service, I went to work for Tommy Heard at Heardsdale Training Center in South Florida. Dr. Thomas had a son who was going to be a trainer and he knew Tommy Heard and he hooked me up with him to see if the racing end of the business was for me. I was only there with him for six months and I got a call from John Ward, who was a very good friend, that Mack Miller was looking for a foreman. So I went to work for Mack Miller.
That’s when he had Cragswood Stable for Charles Engelhard. I stayed with Mack for about 2 1/2 years and then decided that the racetrack wasn’t what I wanted in the future. It interfered with my social life. You go to bed real early and you get up real early. There’s not much of that social life.
So I came back to Kentucky and wasn’t sure what I was going to do as far as the horse industry was concerned. I had put my way through college working at the college bookstore. They offered me a position at their store, so I did that for about seven years. That’s where I experienced a little involving management, personnel, but then the horse industry bug raised its head again and some friends offered to assist me in starting a bloodstock and insurance agency. So I sold equine insurance for American Livestock Insurance Company for about 15 years. After participating with John Ward in the Calumet Farm bankruptcy, I worked there with John as I continued my insurance agency, the KTA was looking for an executive director. The one who was in place was leaving and John, who was on the board of the KTA, recommended I interview. So I did and fortunately Dr. [A. Gary] Lavin and Dell Hancock. Doc was president and Dell was vice president at the time and they recommended me for the position. That was 21 years ago.”
TIHR: Going from working at a bookstore to working in bloodstock and selling insurance to the position with the KTA must have been quite an adjustment, specifically considering all the politics involved.
DS: That was really a concern that Doc Lavin, Dell and the board had when I interviewed. I had the husbandry background, knowledge about the breeding industry, knowledge about the racing part of the industry, but I had no knowledge about the political side of what the executive director position entailed. That was something they were concerned about. There was at least one other person who had background as a lobbyist, but had no experience in the industry. So they took a leap of faith and offered the position to me. In all honesty, the position is about being a people person. Being able to get along with other folks, be friendly, et cetera. So the first two or three years, representing the KTA in Frankfort and in Washington, it was just getting to know the members of the General Assembly or the members of Congress from Kentucky and developing a relationship. Then as you get new members coming in you have to develop new relationships. That’s really the nuts and bolts of a lobbyist.
TIHR: How did you learn?
DS: It does help that I had a very fine mentor in Judith Taylor, who was and is a lobbyist for Keeneland. She was a mentor to me. Her part was showing me the nuts and bolts of drafting legislation and the process of how to get legislation passed or defeated, et cetera. I had a very good mentor.
TIHR: Were the early days a challenge or was it something you adapted to easily?
DS: The toughest thing I had to overcome when I started was dealing with legislation that we had tried to get passed and it didn’t. Early on I took it personally and you can’t do that. And I learned real quick that you can’t do that. The way I look at it today and have for probably 18 of the 21 years is that it’s a game. It’s a serious game, but it’s a game. You win some and you lose some, but you just have to take the losses in stride with the wins, just like if you have a racehorse. You’re not going to win every race so you’ve got to take the wins with the losses and hopefully you end up with more wins than you do losses.
TIHR: What were some of the issues you dealt with in those early days?
DS: Early in my career the gaming issue raised its head. That was about 1994. Our organization has gone from totally opposed to it, to somewhat opposed to it, to somewhat in favor of it to now today I think the sentiment of our board and membership is more that it really is not the panacea that people thought it was going to be. Is it really working? Are the racinos paying attention to the horse industry or are they paying attention to the gaming industry? Our board changed over the years, so the philosophy changed as well. That was, early on, an issue that we all had to deal with.
TIHR: So it’s fair to say the gaming issue has essentially been a constant for your career with the KTA, correct?
DS: It’s been on the table since 1994, so that’s 20 years. It has been a constant. I don’t know that it will continue. If Chauncey, my successor, will have to deal with it I don’t know. Personally I think that the Historical Racing, with a clean bill of health from the courts, that could possibly be a better fit for our industry and the racino business.
There were other issues that we’ve dealt with – tax issues, trying to get benefits to the breeding industry, the [Kentucky Thoroughbred] Breeders’ Incentive Program was a big deal that we worked with other organizations to get that passed, the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Lexington is very important to all the livestock industry but definitely the equine industry. We partnered with the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association and the University of Kentucky to get the General Assembly to allocate $28 million for the renovation of that facility. That was a really big deal.
TIHR: And one that didn’t happen overnight.
DS: One of the other things I learned is that it often takes a considerable amount of time to get legislation passed. The Diagnostic Lab was a seven-year project. There’s another one that we partnered with the American Horse Council on and two years ago, Gov. [Steve] Beshear got involved with it, where we got help from the Obama administration so our commercial breeding operations are eligible for federal disaster relief in the event that a disaster is declared. So if we go back to 2009, when we had the ice storm that did considerable damage, the horse industry did not get any relief. The cattle industry, in fact a cattle farm next door to one of our horse farms, did. We worked on that one for like 15 years. We hope we never have to use it, but in the event that it does, that was a big deal for us in Washington.
TIHR: The mare reproductive loss syndrome issue in 2001 could be classified as a disaster.
DS: That was a big high and low day there with MRLS. John Ward was training Monarchos and he won the Kentucky Derby. John and I go way back. I was on a jump crew for a horse show one summer and John was showing horses and we became friends. He became my little brother in our fraternity in college, best man in a wedding. John and I go back a long way. We’re at a brunch the Sunday after the Derby, celebrating with John and Donna and the Oxleys and I get the phone call that we’ve got a problem. And it was a big problem.
TIHR: How was the KTA involved in that situation?
DS: There was a lot of PR stuff that our association handled. We started off by developing a task force with how to deal with an emergency. People in our industry raised over $1.5 million for research to try and find the definitive cause. We still didn’t know the definitive cause. We do know that the caterpillar played a role in it, so now we can manage. We can keep the pregnant mares off the pastures if there are the caterpillars around it.
We had to counter so many things with bad publicity that was going on. There were folks from other states that were advertising, ‘get your horses out of Kentucky and up here where they’re safe,’ or ‘down here where they’re safe.’ Eventually we found out that we were not the only state that was dealing with this problem. So we had to deal with that.
One of the key parts to the MRLS situation was that the breeders in Central Kentucky realized that they were all in the same canoe. It wasn’t just affecting one or two farms, it was affecting all the farms. They pooled together to realize they had an objective, something they could all have a commonality to solve this issue, this problem. That was a big two, three years.
TIHR: Compare the KTA from when you started to now.
DS: There are more similarities than differences. When it was started back in the 1970s, by people like Charlie Nuckols, Warner Jones and John Greathouse and even Thurston Morton, who was a state senator at the time, the organization was started to have some significant impact on legislation in Frankfort and Washington and it has continued to do that. We have a board that has grown, but we’re starting to get some of our Vision 20/20 people to serve on our board, they are the future. We don’t need everybody that’s long in the tooth. Vision 20/20, I’m very proud of that. Young people are embracing the idea that they are going to be the next leaders. They are going to need to know what’s going on. You can read about it and people like you do an excellent job writing about issues, et cetera, but to be in a room and hear different people speak that are very familiar with the issue, it’s education. That’s something this association can be very proud of that it started.
TIHR: What else are you particularly proud of?
DS: Being part of the groups that developed the Breeders’ Incentive Program. Our idea was for the program to benefit as many of our commercial breeders as possible and not make it a restricted program. The progeny that you raise don’t just have to race in Kentucky. We are an export industry. Thirty percent of our horses are exported internationally. Probably 80 percent of the foal crop annually leaves the state of Kentucky. You have no control over those horses once you sell them at the sales. So the thing we pushed for in the Breeders’ Incentive Program is you can race anywhere in the world and if progeny that you bred wins you’re going to get a reward. I don’t know of any other state that does that. California may give some rewards if you win a graded stakes outside the state of California, but ours is unique.
Another thing, and not that our association had anything to do with it but our members have, is we’re creating and developing horses that can win races all over the world. Even though some people are saying we’re producing bad horses, we had a phenomenal year last year at Royal Ascot. Something like 44 percent of the Kentucky-bred horses that ran in 2013 won or placed in the group races. This year we weren’t quite as successful but during the month of June, in England, we had a phenomenal number of Kentucky-bred horses that won. So like I said, it’s not something the KTA or KTOB can take credit for, but our members can take credit for something like that.
We also got on board the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium from Day 1. We were one of the founding members and we put the money up. We didn’t just say we were going to work with the RMTC, we were one of the founding members of it and I think the RMTC has made some great progress. Certainly in the past two or three years with the uniform medication that was started by the Mid-Atlantic group is now spreading to other jurisdictions and it’s the RMTC that is funding a lot of the research for the threshold levels for therapeutic medications. That has been a positive for our industry. We still have a little ways to go.
TIHR: On the flip side, there certainly were setbacks and disappointments.
DS: My most disappointing is we have never been able to get rid of the sales tax on feed, fencing, equipment and veterinary pharmaceuticals that the equine industry has to pay. My hope is that the Kentucky General Assembly is going to take up overall tax reform. When they do, and I’m confident it’s going to be a when not an if, that I believe our industry will be at the table because the governor, lieutenant governor and the Blue Ribbon Task Force that the governor appointed believe we need to get rid of that sales tax. It’s an unfair sales tax on our industry.
Maybe my successor, because if I leave August 1, the General Assembly doesn’t go back in until January, maybe he can have that on his plate and will be more successful in getting that one done.
TIHR: Quick, you’ve got less than 30 days left. What would you like to see between now and then?
DS: With only 30 days left, I would like for our racing commission to get a regulation passed that would allow our racetracks in Kentucky, if they so wanted to, be able to write a conditioned race that is medication free. I’m not proposing we get rid of Lasix altogether. But just to see if there is some interest in people racing without the Lasix. We’d have to get the regulation changed to that.
TIHR: Who are some of your biggest allies on this journey.
DS: An ally would certainly be John Ward. He played a significant role in my life. He helped me get the job with Mack Miller. Helped me get the job here. Considered me for the management team at Calumet Farm.
The first time I met Charles Engelhard, that was interesting. We were stabled in Aiken, South Carolina, and he came to visit. Mr. Miller asked me to go pick him up at the airport. I was instructed to take a 6-pack of Coca Cola with me. Mr. Engelhard was diabetic. I don’t know if you remember, but some people used to think of Mr. Engelhard as the character in Goldfinger. He was from South Africa and was in the mining business, but he was quite a gentleman. He was the first person to pay six figures for a yearling at the Keeneland sales. That’s one of the reasons this organization honors him, even today, with the Engelhard Award that goes to a journalist. Mr. Engelhard didn’t visit the stable very often but when he did he was very polite and cordial to the help. I enjoyed meeting him.
It’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve enjoyed all 21 years of it. I’ve had a wonderful staff. My office manager Vickie Garcia, she’s been with the organization 30 years and quite proud of her accomplishments. She started on the ground floor with the association, with our office over in Louisville and has just progressively worked her way up to a senior position. I’m real proud of her.
TIHR: What about your outlook on the industry going forward?
DS: One disappointment and I don’t know if that’s the right word, but we are too focused on tradition. Change is not bad. If we could start thinking with that kind of vision and change and what could be better, why stay doing the same thing over and over and over again? Let’s try some new things. Maybe the young generation, or younger generation, will be more in the mind of trying to do something that isn’t just tradition.
We’ve got some programs that I was complimenting Garrett O’Rourke on at our board member. He is the godfather of the Kentucky Equine Management Internship program. I’ve served on their board since its inception. I’m very proud of the numbers of young people that have gotten jobs because they went through that internship program. His vision was, ‘where is our next farm manager, broodmare manager, yearling manager going to come from?’ Similar to Sheikh Mohammed with his Flying Start. Where are our next leaders going to come from? You’ve got the KEMI program, the Flying Start program, the Vision 20/20 program, the industry is doing more good things than bad.
I’m really pleased for Bill Thomason and what they’re doing over at Keeneland. Getting the Breeders’ Cup is great. It’s going to be a challenge, no doubt about it, but I tell people, you’re probably going to sit in the nicest porta-pot you’ve ever sat in. They’ve got a terrific group of young people in their marketing and PR departments as you well know and Bill Thomason is doing a great job as their leader. I will probably watch the Breeders’ Cup from my living room, just like I have when it’s in California. I’ll make room for others.
TIHR: Do you have a favorite horse?
DS: I usually tell people it had to be a Kentucky-bred. That would be it. I never picked a particular horse really to root for over another Kentucky-bred, because it would be a board member probably.
TIHR: And you know yourself what it’s like to have your own horses.
DS: When I was selling insurance and doing some bloodstock work, Kay and I owned some horses. We had broodmares, yearlings, racehorses. One day I came home and Kay said, ‘David, these horses are eating better than we are, traveling more than we are, I’m going to offer you to either have a dispersal sale or an estate sale.’ I think she was serious. We laughed. We had a filly, she was a Grade 3 stakes winner from Chile that we bought in partnership with some folks. I won’t mention the trainer’s name, but I think the travel was what really got to Kay. The filly came in from Chile and went to California, flew from Southern California to New York, then New York to Florida, back to California and never started a race. Then she had a slab fracture of a knee. That’s when Kay said, whoops, this is getting expensive and we’re not getting to go.
But yes, being involved we know about these commercial breeders trying to sell because we’ve been there, done that. We know about buying seasons and your mare not getting in foal. We were involved in the bloodstock industry back in the high-priced days, no guarantee seasons are going like crazy. It’s a little bit different today.”
TIHR: Tell us something we might not know about David Switzer.
DS: I tell a story on myself, I don’t mind doing that Tom, about the first letter I sent to our board about what was going on in Frankfort, some issues we need to look at and address. I mailed it out and I’m not an English scholar by any means. I’m not a good writer like you are. Like my wife says, I am the king of run-on sentences. I get a copy of the letter back in the mail and it looks like it’s been through a blood bath. Red marks here, red marks there and it was Ben Walden, Elliot and young Ben’s dad. He was an English major, graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in English. On the bottom of the letter, one final thing it said, ‘David, before you send another letter out to your board, send it to me first and let me edit it.’ So after Ben was no longer with us I continued the practice. My wife edits everything that I write before I send it out. And she is a former educator.
TIHR: What’s next?
DS: My wife says I have to leave the house at 8:30 and I can’t come home until suppertime. I like to play golf, but I can’t play golf everyday. I do enjoy cooking, but she says that doesn’t get me out of the house.
I have been involved in various community projects throughout my career, whether it was doing insurance or here with the association. I felt it was important to serve on community boards while I was here with the KTA-KTOB because it gave me the opportunity to tell people in our community who were also serving on those boards, they would ask questions about the horse industry and you’d find that the perception was not the reality. So I’ve served on the Arts Council [LexArts]. I continue to serve on a committee with the United Way. I served on the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Partnership program, which is now called GreenHouse17. I gained more out of serving on that board than they gained from me serving on it. It was quite an eye-opening experience. I’ll continue to serve on boards like that.
I told the governor one day when we were playing golf that in my retirement I would like to have something to do so maybe he’d consider appointing me to one of the commissions for the state. He said, ‘I guess you want one that pays?’ But I’ll be involved in the community and I’ll be involved in the transition. I’m not going to leave Chauncey high and dry. I’ll get a briefcase and do some consulting.
My wife and I will do some traveling. And we’ve been fortunate enough to do some with the association. We’ve got some places on our bucket list that we haven’t been to yet that we’re going to take. We are going to Kenya and Tanzania in late September. A little safari. She’s got a trip to India and Greece and Southeast Asia in the bucket that we’ll start pulling out.
TIHR: Any message to your friends and colleagues with a little less than a month to go until you retire?
DS: In the end, it’s been a privilege to represent the KTA-KTOB. During my tenure the board and our members have made positive differences in many ways for the betterment of the Thoroughbred industry. Sometimes criticized, justifiably, for not tooting our horn, I tended to follow President Harry Truman’s saying “It’s amazing what you can achieve when you don’t care who gets the credit.” Thanks for the ride.