‘Bullish On Thoroughbred Racing,’ New NTRA Chief Rooney Sets Sights On Washington

When the National Thoroughbred Racing Association board began its search for a new president and chief executive officer to replace Alex Waldrop, who announced his retirement earlier this year, it became obvious that it would be vital to find someone who knew his or her way around Washington, D.C.

That’s why the hiring of former U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney to fill that role seems like a perfect fit and the decision to open a Washington office makes sense. Who knows the U.S. Capitol better than a former Member of Congress. Rooney brings the added value of coming from a family that is well known not only in sports as longtime owner of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, but also in racing.

The Rooney family has owned several tracks over the years, including Yonkers Raceway in New York, and currently the Palm Beach Kennel Club, which has evolved into a card room and simulcast center after dog racing in Florida was killed via statewide referendum. Rooney is actively engaged in the Thoroughbred industry through his family’s Shamrock Farm in Maryland, where he currently serves on the board of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association

Rooney, 50, is a native of Philadelphia who served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives in Florida’s Districts 16 and 17 that comprise an area bordering the Gulf Coast in the south-central portion of the state. Rooney was interviewed by Paulick Report publisher Ray Paulick.

When he was running for president, Joe Biden asked, “Why should you get a (tax) break for racehorses and not get a break for child care?” How would you answer that question?
Tax relief for child care costs supports our country’s working families. It is the right thing to do. It’s also the right thing to do to make sure that the tax code treats investments properly, especially when that investment is in an industry like ours that isn’t well understood. Owning, raising, and training Thoroughbreds is the economic foundation of our industry, supporting thousands of family farms and open working space. The majority of breeding operations are small, local farms that are incredibly important to the economic health of their communities.

How important is preservation of the depreciation for racehorses and other tax benefits to the health of the industry? Is there any danger they could be taken away?
It’s very important to make sure the tax law is an accurate reflection of the economics of this industry, and the current rule regarding depreciation is set to expire at the end of this year. This is something the NTRA is already focused on that will be a big priority for me out of the gate. Additionally, some of the tax relief that was included in the 2017 legislation will begin to sunset or change in other ways over the next few years and those could impact investment in racehorses. Our work to maintain or expand these provisions is at the top of our agenda.

Where does the racing industry stand with its political action committee? Is Horse PAC large enough to give the industry a chance to be heard by Members of Congress?
Whether people like it or not, campaign contributions are a big part of how our political system works. Horse PAC is vitally important to our efforts in Washington. Not only do we have to raise and distribute money, but I need to be at the table to go shoulder to shoulder with the other industries competing for legislation that benefits them.

What challenges do you see coming up in Washington, D.C., relative to the startup of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority?
Change isn’t always easy and, in this case, we are looking at implementing a new system of federal oversight. This is a substantial change, involving coordination among the FTC, the HISA Authority, USADA and industry stakeholders. It’s going to take consensus and collaboration. We can’t turn back here. The old system was not serving us well both practically and in terms of public perception.

What were your views on HISA (and previous attempts at similar legislation) during your years in Congress and what are they today?
I never got a chance to vote for HISA as I was already out of Congress when it passed, but I would have voted in support. In addition to the comprehensive reforms it enables, it also gives us a chance to show the public and government leaders that we are addressing fundamental safety issues and are headed in the right direction. We have to give HISA a chance to succeed.

The vision for the NTRA has evolved from a “league office” that at one time was operationally merged with the Breeders’ Cup. Among other things, it incorporated marketing and promotion, broadcast rights, racing sponsorships, group purchasing and advocacy in Washington, D.C. What would you say are the NTRA’s top priorities today?
I can’t really speak to what happened 15-20 years ago. RIght now, the NTRA’s top priority is to build on our track record at the federal level, to make sure our political leaders understand the important economic contributions our industry generates, that they appreciate our collective responsibility and commitment to the safety and welfare of our athletes.

New NTRA president and CEO Tom Rooney (center) presenting a trophy at the Maryland Million

Your family has been involved in the NFL for many years as owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers. What did the NFL do to become so popular over the last 30 or 40 years that horse racing failed to do?
The NFL and major network television were a perfect marriage. The irony is that in the early days of the Steelers, our family’s racing operations provided the funding that kept the team alive.

I’m bullish on Thoroughbred racing. Even with the issues of the last few years, the sport has built a reservoir of goodwill with the public. Interest remains strong — the Kentucky Derby this year had higher ratings than the World Series, the Masters and the NBA Finals. A national survey of sports bettors this summer showed horse racing as their sixth favorite sport to bet. We were behind football, basketball, baseball, soccer and boxing but ahead of golf, hockey, tennis and several others.

How do you see sports betting on the competitive landscape? Is there any upside from it for horse racing?
It’s here and it’s only going to get bigger, so we need to view sports betting as an opportunity. This is a highly engaged audience of people who enjoy betting and many of them may not currently bet on racing. Thoroughbred racing is premier betting content that should be attractive to this audience. It is important that we integrate racing into sports betting platforms and it is encouraging that it is already happening with examples like FanDuel Racing and NYRA’s partnership with BetMGM.

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