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Spreading the word of Springdale

Dr. Nick Ellis hits the ground running in search of sponsors for Cup races

Posted: July 21, 2015 5:42 p.m.
Updated: July 22, 2015 1:00 a.m.
Provided by Catherine French/

Nick Ellis and his Airedale Terrier, Claire, head to the office at the National Steeplechase Museum. Ellis, a member of the National Steeplechase Association Board of Directors, is the new chief executive officer of the Carolina Cup and Colonial Cup races.

While riding steeplechasers for the late trainer Bobby Davis at a pair of Delaware Park races in the 1970s, Nixon Ellis was put on two jumpers who ran off with him and didn’t stop until they hit the wire in front of the rest of their respective fields and gave the young jockey two victories.

The two jumpers previously had a rider who came from the show jumping world and whose deliberate and more technical style did not suit the free-wheeling jumpers. The wily Davis knew exactly what he was doing in making the change to Ellis, who first came to Davis’ barn in Camden on weekends while he was an undergraduate student at the University of South Carolina.

With his days in the saddle as a show rider not so long behind him, while those as a jockey at the track are well behind in life’s rear-view mirror, Dr. Nixon “Nick” Ellis is back on the grounds of the Springdale Race Course. This time, however, his seat is not on the back of some precocious thoroughbred. Instead, his high-backed swivel chair sits behind a desk in his new digs at the National Steeplechase Museum in what used to be Hope Cooper’s former office as assistant race director for the Carolina Cup and Colonial Cup steeplechase meets.

After years of trying to slip away into retirement, Cooper was convinced to stay on with the post until all but putting her foot down and saying it was time for her to step aside and give someone else a chance.

Little did anyone think Cooper’s successor would be a gentleman whose professional resume does not cry out horseman and public relations expert. Instead, a closer look at the Ellis file reveals someone who has been the chief executive officer and president of Argolyn Bioscience Inc. since March 2008. He also served as president of Trimeris Inc. after having served as its executive vice president and chief business officer. Dr. Ellis founded Triangle Pharmaceuticals Inc., a biopharmaceutical company and served as its president and chief operating officer from 1995-2000.

From 1983 to 1995, Dr. Ellis held various positions at Burroughs Wellcome Co., a multinational pharmaceutical company. He served as global brand director for HIV/Retrovir at The Wellcome Foundation Ltd. and assistant director, division of virology. He has almost 30 years of experience with biopharmaceutical companies.

While one might think Ellis, recently tabbed as the new and first chief executive officer of the Carolina Cup, is just along for the ride in his new position, nothing could be farther removed from the truth.

Sure, the equine business is not as pressure-packed or has the same ramifications as did Ellis’ positions in the pharmaceutical industry. That does not mean that he is not bringing that same philosophy to Camden.

A member of the Carolina Cup Racing Association (CCRA) Board of Directors since 2008, Ellis was the chairman of the Carolina Horse Park in Raeford, N.C., just outside of Southern Pines, which hosts the Stoneybrook Steeplechase meet which is run each April the weekend after the Carolina Cup.

“It’s probably 250 acres, but it has really struggled financially; there are not enough horse shows there,” Ellis said of his former post at the Carolina Horse Park. “So, I decided to depart there because I felt that I was fighting a losing battle.”

Through his involvement with the CCRA, Ellis was aware Cooper had been seeking to retire only to be convinced by CCRA chairman Beverly “Peggy” Steinman to stay aboard until a suitable replacement could be found. Not one to sit idly by, Cooper and former Carolina Cup Director John Cushman placed separate calls to Ellis as they tried to gauge his interest in taking over for  Cooper. Ellis expressed his interest in the job to both his pursuers.

And when the CCRA board convened in May, Cooper took the floor to say she would be more than willing to stay on as a consultant to whoever the committee deemed fit to take her place. At that time, she looked to Ellis and told the board of the call which she placed to him earlier in the year.

Ellis, who also serves on the National Steeplechase Association Board of Directors, confirmed his interest in becoming Cooper’s replacement while the board members listened, albeit with one caveat.

“I don’t think that the board, at that time, thought that I would be interested in doing this other than in an interim position where I would take over for six months and then be part of the committee that is actually looking for someone to replace Hope,” Ellis said. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought that I was not really a part-time guy. If I’m in a job, I want to get my arms around it and get control of things and run it for awhile.

“I said to the board, ‘Let’s can the search idea.’”

Ellis said in accepting the position, he told Steinman and his fellow CCRA board members he would give a minimum of a year at his new job and the board would have their option or, Ellis would have his option to extend it for another 12 months.

“I said that I could see myself doing it for another three years,” he said of his commitment to the Camden steeplechase meets.

The next bit of business which needed to be addressed was Ellis’ new title. 

With Jeff Teter as the executive director of the races and Catherine French, executive director of the National Steeplechase Museum, Ellis said a third executive director might be more than a bit confusing. For a while, the thought was to have Ellis’ title as director of administration. Ellis told Steinman while he was not holding out for a title, the person whose job is, partly, to attract new sponsors to the two events, needed one with enough cache to get him meetings with prospective sponsors.

“So I went back to the board and said to Peggy, ‘I don’t care what you want to call me but you have two executive directors out there already with Jeff and Catherine,’” Ellis said. “If I’m going to go out there and get into the door at BMW and everywhere else, I can’t be director of administration.’

“They went back and huddled up and said ‘This is what we’re going to call you. This will get you into the door.’”

While being called chief executive officer might lead to the thinking Teter answers to Ellis, the truth of the matter is the pair each has a unique skill set. That being the case, the two are working toward the same goal but coming from different directions and backgrounds.

“Jeff Teter does a brilliant job with the whole facility and as race director,” Ellis said of his colleague and former three-time champion steeplechase jockey. “He and I have virtually no professional overlapping skills. I have a PH.D. and an MBA and have spent most of my professional life either doing research in a big pharma company or, being part of a big pharma company in business development, marketing or whatever.

“I chaired Southern Pines race meetings, but that’s quite different from Jeff’s experience on the ground and managing the day of the event and preparing the facility for not just specific event use but keeping it year ‘round so we can have horses. I thought that would be a pretty good fit. I saw some of the things where I thought I could help him and things that I thought that Jeff didn’t particularly want to do.

“The more I thought about the pieces for this job that I could help on, the more I felt that there wouldn’t be any conflict between Jeff and I and that it would probably be a really good fit.” 

Not all the pieces fit snugly, though. Ellis still maintains his residence in Southern Pines. He comes to Camden on Monday and stays here through Friday, returning home on the weekends. While some wives might not think at this situation as ideal, Ellis said he is lucky his wife, Effie, not only has a grasp on the job but also is familiar with the lay of the land in Camden, particularly with its equine heritage and traditions. 

“My wife still has several horses,” said Ellis, who is an unabashed “equine history buff” himself. “She grew up down here and still has a lot of friends down here. She likes to hunt. The thought of me being down here four nights a week, particularly when the hunting season started, she would enjoy that. I didn’t have any friction at home, which was good.”

Having moved into his office July 1 left Ellis with a little more than four months to try and put together a plan to attract sponsors for the Nov. 21 Marion DuPont Scott Colonial Cup. Since taking over, he started putting sponsorship packages together, something which was non-existent when he took over.

“They really didn’t have a lot of material here to sell the place,” he said. “If somebody from BMW said, ‘I’m coming to see you tomorrow and I want you to tell me about the place,’ there weren’t even works in the drawer where I could pull out a few things and say, ‘Well here are our sponsorship options’ and things like that. And there certainly wasn’t a PowerPoint presentation where I could click on a video of race day or, an aerial (photo of the facility.)

“I’ve really spent the first two weeks trying to put some of that stuff together to where I would be in a position where I could go out and talk to people.”

While at Stoneybrook, a much smaller meet than the Carolina Cup with payouts of $75,000 spread over five races this past April, sponsors abounded on the card. A week earlier, at the Carolina Cup, a major sponsor was non-existent.

“At Southern Pines, which is a much smaller steeplechase,” he said, “we had almost every race sponsored. Here at Camden, once we lost Lexus, we haven’t had a big sponsor. So here’s this great facility with all this tradition and you need somebody out there talking to people about the events that we have here and the exposure of their products or, helping entertain their clients or finding new clients … that sort of thing.”

The tight window between now and the running of the Camden fall classic on the third Saturday in November makes it tough to attract new sponsors or even former ones to return to the fold. That is not stopping Ellis from trying, however. And the Colonial Cup is playing a central role in Ellis’ pitch as he wants to bring a sponsor in for both races, not just a one and done with the larger and more popular Carolina Cup. He is also using his background in pharmaceuticals as a starting off point for potential business partners.

“The sponsors I’m talking to now,” he said, “I’m telling them that this is two-part deal. ‘I know you like the Carolina Cup, but you have to take both (races.)’

“I’m used to being in business development and had a big pharmaceutical company and sometimes, you would have one potential drug that was farther along in development than the other; they might be two years apart. When the company was interested in licensing the second one, which was further back and the early testing looked better than the first one, you would say, ‘Look, I know you like the second one better but you have to take both.’

“I hope that will work.”

The demographics of the two Camden jump races are reasons why one may appeal to one business sector and not the other. The fall race attracts a smaller, older and more family-friendly group of patrons while many view the Carolina Cup as bringing in a younger, heavier partying crowd.

In the first instance, a sponsor can have more personal communication with a prospective client than they can have in the spring.

Ellis said he is currently in talks with a group which is only interested in coming on board for just the Colonial Cup. There are car dealerships, he said, which also like the thought of being associated with race-goers in the fall.

“You can tell them that they don’t have to mingle with the college kids but it’s sort of like they don’t believe it,” Ellis said of the perception some sponsors have of the Carolina Cup crowd. “They’re worried that their customers over there in the turf club (the private tents on the home stretch berm) are going to be subjected to a rowdy bunch of college kids.

“I say to them that you’d only be subjected to a rowdy bunch of college kids is if you walk about three-quarters of a mile across the race track, across the infield and there you’ll find College Park. That’s a struggle.”

While individual race sponsorships is one road Ellis is traveling, the other is searching for a presenting sponsor. In thoroughbred racing, the best example of a naming sponsor is the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands. Locally, the Carolina Cup and Colonial Cup races had a presenting sponsor in banks which had branch offices in and around Camden. The last time a Camden chase had a presenting sponsor was the 2009 Marion DuPont Scott Colonial Cup presented by TD Bank.

“What we can give a big sponsor for either race or, for both races, is that we can give them naming rights for the Carolina Cup,” he said. “For the Colonial Cup, we’re never going to take Marion DuPont Scott out of it but they would have presenting rights for it.

“We’re definitely looking for someone to take that on. Obviously, from my perspective, it’s a lot like doing a business deal where there is one big deal rather than 10 small ones. Unfortunately, with the way the economy is now, it may not be possible to do that. I’ll take 100 grand however you give it to me. If I get 10 who are going to collaborate together, that’s fine. But if I have one, it’s easier to manage.

“We’re definitely out there looking for that (sponsor.) It might be late for this fall, but if we can pitch it the right way, that it’s a two-part deal, it might work.”

The selling job for the most part, Ellis said, is trying to make people aware of the Colonial Cup. While prospective patrons know there is a fall steeplechase race in Camden, they also know there are college football games being played throughout the state on Saturdays in the fall. To a lesser extent, NFL football has also made its way to the regional psyche with the arrival of the Carolina Panthers in 1995.

As a CCRA board member, Ellis echoed the words of his colleagues as well as the four race men who have served as director of the Colonial Cup since its first race in 1970. Seemingly everything has been tried to make the Camden fall classic a popular event on the region’s sports calendars. The race has been held on Saturday and Sundays, and measures taken in order to try and attract football fans to come to the steeplechase meet and not miss a moment of the game.

“We have done everything in our power to try and positing the race to where it didn’t compete with football,” Ellis said. “We moved it to Sunday and they didn’t come. We moved to Saturday, on an off weekend, and they didn’t come. On a Saturday when there was a night game, we said, ‘Look, you’re not going to miss the football game.’ We just can’t seem to get it.

“We felt it appropriate to have the Salute to the Military with the Colonial Cup. We were hoping in doing that that we might get some of the folks from Shaw Air Force Base and Fort Jackson to bring their families for the day but we haven’t been able to do that, yet. We might get some military contractors out of it but we have to get the military members here before their contractors are willing to sponsor something here unless they know their guys are here.”

Another idea Ellis said will be tried this year is contacting people who have graduated from area high schools or colleges and not moved too far from the region -- those who have gone to the races for years but who were reluctant to bring their children to the Carolina Cup. For that group, the Colonial Cup is trying to get class lists or, get in touch with representatives from the schools in order to have Cup-goers return to Springdale Race Course for a reunion to be staged at the Colonial Cup.

“We haven’t given up on the Colonial Cup,” Ellis said. “We just have to be creative in how we pitch it. The tradition and the rite of spring the Carolina Cup has become makes it an easy sell. We have to create the same type of impact for the Colonial Cup. We just haven’t figured out what the right angle is.”

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