HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, June 1, 2023 –Tom Rooney may have taken a circuitous route to his current position as President and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association but clearly it was a role he was destined to play. He was bred for it.
For those few remaining fans who do not know the historical background of one of America’s more prominent sports families, Rooney’s grandfather, Art Rooney Sr., parlayed his racetrack winnings into becoming the founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1933.
Talk about making a score at the racetrack.
The genesis of our phone visit Tuesday was based on his introductory remarks on a Preakness Stakes national teleconference when he told an international gathering that the industry “must own” the equine carnage that transpired Derby week at Churchill Downs.
Before turning the microphone over to the conference host, Rooney said he would answer any questions from the media on the most compelling challenges Thoroughbred racing faces going forward.
HRI generally does not traffic in dialogue with racetrack management for racing stories because it has been frustratingly futile to separate real wheat from spun chaff. And of that?
“In order to assess the problem, we owe total truth and complete honesty to the fans on the steps we’re taking to improve safety for the horses and horsemen and how we’re trying to make the right decisions to improve the product,” said Rooney, before adding:
“We have a huge responsibility. Maybe five years ago we would not scratch a horse from competing as we do now. And if it is true that we’re breeding fragile animals that inherently are less sound, the public would not stand for it for very long…
“We have statistics that show fewer injuries than ever before, but with social media and knowing that animals no longer exist solely to give us pleasure as they were one hundred years ago, we owe the fans total honesty. My family owned a dog track; I know how things can go away.
“Technology is improving. Computer diagnostics can detect and measure infinitesimal changes in a horse’s gait, how it walks, things not even a jockey would notice. If a horse is the least bit off, the issue can be addressed and a record made of any pre-existing condition.”
Rooney believes the Kentucky Derby ratings, second in viewership only to this year’s Super Bowl, proves that racing remains popular with sports fans, but like many, was disappointed by the reception the Preakness received.
“Media and television do a good job building interest in the sport with its Derby coverage, educating fans about the horses so that they take an interest in them. Then you return two weeks later and the only story is whether or not Maje will have a chance to win the Triple Crown?
So then how does racing get owners and trainers to support one of racing’s three traditional classics?
“I’ve heard an idea to raise the level of Grade 1 classics, making the race a Grade 1A as some added incentive and value. But I will say I’ve heard a lot more discussion recently on increasing the spacing of the races. Horses don’t run every two weeks like my grandfather’s did.
“I would like to see two more weeks between the Derby and Preakness and two more between the Preakness and Belmont. It’s a good time, not a lot of competition [from other sports]. The classics could be American holiday events, run on weekends closest to Memorial Day and the 4th of July.“
Should racing embrace sports wagering?
“I don’t buy the argument that once our fans are allowed to bet on sports that they would abandon racing. People bet on sports and horses for many different reasons. Maybe sports bettors would like to throw horses into their parlays? I think there would be some [racing-sports] crossover.”
And what of the specter of Computer Assisted Wagering, and how sports bettors would never accept the precipitous odds drops than have become commonplace in parimutuel racing?
“I talk to a lot of people and odds drops is the number one complaint I hear everywhere. If someone places a last-minute bet at 8-1 that pays off at 4-1, it’s not fair and is extremely concerning.
“Parimutuels are deeply rooted. As for fixed-odds wagering, what would be its effect on overall handle when foreign bookmakers offer it in competition [with U.S. parimutuels]? The jury is still out on the best way to handle it. Perhaps a hybrid would work, something like what is available at Monmouth Park.”
this is the first of a two-part interview