Students work with nonprofit dedicated to thoroughbred racehorse aftercare

Elizabeth Clements and Katherine Wilburn
June 13, 2017

Horses are part of life in Lexington, Kentucky. Each year, thousands of racehorses in Lexington, and elsewhere, are trained with the hope that they will become a champion. But like all athletes, racehorses have finite careers. Horses rarely race past the age of eight, but they can live to be 30 years old. What happens when a racehorse is ready to retire?

Enter Maker's Mark Secretariat Center, a nonprofit organization that launched in 2007 and is located on the grounds of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. The center specializes in racehorse reschooling. It also finds new homes and careers for retired racehorses to ensure that when a thoroughbred's racing career ends, her or his well-being and care do not.

This spring, a team of graduate students in DePaul's Driehaus College of Business became intimately acquainted with the thoroughbred industry. As part of Professor Patrick J. Murphy's social enterprise seminar, the students consulted pro-bono to the center.

Murphy's seminar entails hands-on learning experiences and consulting to social enterprises. 

"These projects take course concepts into the real world, often into fascinating contexts, using entrepreneurship principles to address serious problems," he says.

Last year, Susanna Thomas, executive director of the Maker's Mark Secretariat Center, asked Murphy for help with strategic planning, operational sustainability and enhancing mission-based impact. The project became one of several in his spring 2017 seminar. At the end of the quarter, the students delivered a report full of strategic recommendations based on seminar concepts. 

"Thoroughbred racehorse welfare is one of the many diverse contexts in which a social enterprise can change the world," Murphy says. "We teach students how to champion such causes through social enterprise. The approach is different from traditional nonprofit work and state-based solutions, but it's also different from purely for-profit entrepreneurship."

In April, Murphy and the student team traveled to Lexington. They toured the center's facilities, participated in its operations, and worked with retired racehorses. The DePaul team also visited Taylor Made Farm for a private meeting with world-famous retired racehorse California Chrome, winner of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Dubai World Cup races, as well as the 2014 and 2016 Horse of the Year awards. 

"There's a big difference between understanding your client and knowing your client," says Amelia Pawlak, an MBA student project team member. "Seeing the facilities and interacting with the racehorses made all the difference in how I approached the consulting work. Submersion in the business is the best way to understand the client."

Murphy developed the social enterprise program six years ago based on strong DePaul student interest and has stewarded many outreach projects. This one was unique though, he explains, and it was made possible with support from DePaul alumna Donna Killoughey-Bird.

"Through experiences working for, volunteering with, and serving on various boards of nonprofits, I know how critical it is to have a thoughtful, detailed and written strategic plan," says Killoughey-Bird, a horse lover who funded the airfare for the students to travel to Lexington. "I am thrilled to see DePaul students help the Maker's Mark Secretariat Center continue to thrive as a wonderful place for these beautiful animals."

Thoroughbred aftercare is a fast-growing, entrepreneurial sector of the industry. 

"Our team recognized that times have changed since 2007 and some enterprise restructuring was needed," says Usman Mannan, the student team's leader. "We focused on fundraising, board development, community outreach and web presence. For social enterprises, awareness and education are key strategic elements."

The student team evaluated the venture's competitive field, proposed operational shifts, analyzed its financials, and rewrote the center's mission statement. The students also prepared a board development plan and identified possible strategic partner organizations. They organized their report into 30, 60 and 90-day implementation schedules. 

"We were extremely impressed by the DePaul students and their report," Thomas says. "They came up with a host of fine suggestions, and we are keen to implement many of them. "

Last but not least, the experience of being around horses made a deep and lasting impression on the DePaul student team. 

"I had no knowledge of horses or what it meant to work with them, but I instantly fell in love," Mannan says. "It really brought our team together to effectively serve our client."

DePaul Driehaus College of Business students

Maker's Mark Secretariat Center Executive Director Susanna Thomas (second from right) and DePaul students Juan Morales, Luke Greene, Usman Mannan and Amelia Pawlak spent time with the center's retired thoroughbred racehorses during their visit to Kentucky in April. (Photo courtesy of Patrick J. Murphy)