There are only a handful of people in Kentucky who have the same job title as Shannon Cobb, that of Chief Financial Officer at a horse racing track. She has been the CFO at the Red Mile since 2002. In the last few years she has also taken on the role of Chief Operating Officer at the harness race track.
“I view my job as blending the financial realities of trying to create a positive business model with the operational realities of how these businesses function,” Cobb said. She is responsible for the financial reporting to the board of directors, and for determining the direction of operations.
“It’s the type of position where you’re interacting with boards of directors, as well as financial institutions and the public, to bring all those things together for a positive impact financially and in the community.” The Red Mile has its own board of directors and there will soon be a joint board with Keeneland, as the two organizations are operating together with Thoroughbred simulcasts, as of July, and historical wagering, beginning in September, at the newly renovated Red Mile.
Historical wagering is a form of pari-mutuel wagering on machines with interactive screens. Technology meets entertainment in this venue, featuring previously run horse races from a database of thousands of races, most of which are from Thoroughbred tracks. The live racing season at the Red Mile runs 10 weeks from summer to early fall. This year’s dates for the Standardbred meet are July 26 to Oct. 10. The addition of joint simulcasting and historical wagering will take the Red Mile from a year-round employment base of about 50 people to close to 300 employees.
“I think right now is the year we’ve worked for, for 13 years,” Cobb said. ”It is so exciting to see.”
A native of Owenton, Kentucky, one of her earliest memories is when she played with her cousins on her grandfather’s farm, the three of them trotting around on a pony named Star. “I’m an animal lover of all types,” Cobb said. She attended county horse shows with her grandparents, “being awed by the beautiful horses and riders, the organ music, the great atmosphere,” she said. “My grandfather, who recently passed away at 93, actually showed Saddlebred horses at the fairs when he was young and must have been pretty good. When he passed, we found hosts of blue ribbons stored away.”
When it was time for Cobb to attend college, she went to UK and majored in accounting. “I saw myself as an attorney,” she said. “It was all about getting a good business degree that I thought would parlay into a corporate law field, which I intended to pursue.”
She took a CPA position with Deloitte & Touche for two years, a national company with a Lexington office at the time. She assumed she would go on to law school, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans often going awry. “I’m not a bit sorry,” Cobb said of her career path. “It’s interesting how much crossover there is in business between financial and legal types of activities.”
As the Red Mile’s CFO, she gets to blend the left-brain elements of detail and precision with right-brain creativity. “That really helps you to be a better business person,” she said. “The accounting has helped my creative side and the creative side has helped my business side. There has never been a day I don’t enjoy my work. It’s always captivating.”
When she speaks to students, Cobb emphasizes accounting as a stepping stone to management positions. After Deloitte, she worked in finance for a company called Treasure Isles that operated some Long John Silver’s and Fazoli’s restaurants. She even explored the idea of becoming a Long John Silver’s franchisee herself shortly before 9/11. Instead, she was called to meet with representatives at Dean Dorton Ford, the accounting firm conducting an audit at the Red Mile.
“I sat down with them and with Joe Costa,” Cobb said of the Red Mile’s president and CEO. “I really got entranced with the idea of trying to revive the Red Mile and bring it back to its glory. It was a challenging business model in a tough industry.”
She saw the commitment and passion of the ownership group, and in early 2002 accepted the position of CFO. “What I remember first was learning what seemed like a foreign language,” she said. The lingo of the racing business—pari-mutuel, handles, payoffs—was new to her, but she caught on quickly and hasn’t looked back.
In her spare time, Cobb is an avid reader and amateur photographer. She also enjoys yoga. She and her husband, Tim, who is also from Owen County, have been married since 1987 and have two daughters. The Cobbs have two dogs, a mini Pom and Lhasa-poo. They just lost their beloved Madison, a golden retriever.
A nature lover, Shannon Cobb is often teased about her insistence on saving a 300-year-old bur oak tree in front of the Red Mile property. It sits right smack in the middle of the Red Mile’s planned “town green roadway” and would have been much easier from a development point to take down.
“I argued passionately for its life and threatened to strap myself to it,” Cobb said. “Now it will be the center point of the town green and the road goes around it on each side. It’s now jokingly referred to as Shannon’s Tree.”