As the COVID-19 pandemic worked to grind the sport of Thoroughbred racing to a halt, Jim Mulvihill made the decision in 2020 to leave his position as senior director of betting information at Churchill Downs for a new start in Colorado. While the move was a necessary one, the worry in Mulvihill's mind became his ability to find a new job in the industry that had helped nurture his creativity and passion for the sport of racing.
“It was a big transition,” said Mulvihill. “That was a career change predicated by my wife's career move as a museum curator. She had the opportunity to become the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. I was broken up to leave Churchill Downs, but this was the right move for our family. I didn't know if I would find a way to keep working in horse racing, but the timing worked out great.”
Less than one year after his move, Mulvihill was named interim executive director of the Colorado Horsemen's Association (CHA). The position was a welcome post to the lifelong horse racing fan, whose career in the sport has taken him around the country in the two decades since his graduation from the University of Arizona's Race Track Industry Program (RTIP).
Growing up in New Orleans, La., Mulvihill's first experiences with racing came during his childhood, spending time at Fair Grounds with family.
“It was something that happened a bit randomly,” said Mulvihill. “I didn't have family ties to the sport, but my older bother was home from college and he and my dad and I decided to go out there just for something to do. I found it to be a fascinating place and I kept going back.”
In December of 1993, a seven-alarm fire swept through Fair Grounds destroying the grandstand and historic clubhouse. Gas line explosions fed the blaze which reduced the nearly century-old structure to cinders. The community's response to the tragedy pushed Mulvihill's growing appreciation of the industry to the next level.
“That fire inspired a resurgence of interest in the track for a lot of people in the city. New Orleanians are enthusiastic about their culture and their history,” said Mulvihill. “There was a lot of attention paid to what was lost in that fire and that resonated with me. I went more and more often, and it moved from a curiosity to an interest to a passion and grew from there.
“After that I started following the national racing scene, the Triple Crown, and the Breeders' Cup. I went on the college in Boston at Emerson, and when I was there, I would make a lot of trips to Suffolk Downs. It was there that I was also able to road trip to the Triple Crown races and get more exposure to big events. But when I was finished at Emerson, I didn't know what I would do with my life.
“I was vaguely aware of the RTIP from their ads in the Daily Racing Form so requested that information and I was struck by their job placement record. I thought, 'Wow. I could do this program for a few semesters and find a job in racing'. That would be a lot more fun than struggling to find my way into audio production which was what my degree was in.”
Accepted into the RTIP, Mulvihill spent three semesters in the program before graduating in 2001. The experience, and the connections he built during the program, gave him the rudder he needed—and continues to rely on—to steer the ship of his career into Thoroughbred racing.
“I had the time of my life, made great friends, and learned so much about the business from Doug Reed and the other staff,” said Mulvihill.
Armed with his previous writing experience in writing and his RTIP diploma, Mulvihill landed a job as the media relations assistant at Lone Star Park. It would become abundantly clear as he climbed the ladder of the industry, that publicity was Mulvihill's calling. He would go on to take positions as communications and pari-mutuel marketing manager with Fair Grounds and as director of media and industry relations for the National Thoroughbred and Racing Association before stepping into his role at Churchill Downs.
“The best thing about racing as a career is that it's endlessly fascinating and always changing,” said Mulvihill. “There is always more to learn, and I love that about it. The longer I'm in it the more mysterious it becomes. I think back to when I was a student and if there was one thing that Doug Reed opened our minds to was how necessary it is to always think about the big picture. I don't focus on short term gains at the expense of the bigger picture of where this business or my career is headed and what is to the benefit of the sport in the long run.”
Mulvihill credits the RTIP with his continued success in the business and his capacity to find jobs suited to his passion, no matter how far afield he may find himself.
“I love racetracks and horsemen and while Arapahoe Park isn't Churchill Downs, it is a racetrack and I love being there,” said Mulvihill of his new position in Colorado. “The RTIP has always helped me to make the next step in my career because of all the contacts I made as a student. Those continue to benefit me to this day and gave me such a head start in networking—they open doors no matter where I go. The great part about it is that, with a company like Churchill Downs it can be hard to feel like you're making a measurable difference every day, but in the job I have now, I feel like every day I'm making decisions that will positively impact my horsemen. That's a big responsibility but a real gift and it's so gratifying.
“If someone is contemplating a career in racing, the best thing you can do is start looking at your options to make it a reality. To me, the shortest path from being a fan to finding a profession in horse racing is the RTIP.”