ARCI conference: Industry insiders call for unity

Racing’s future is, by widespread agreement, uncertain, with the impact of federal legislation, declining foal crops, damaged public perception, and many other issues presenting challenges.

On the second day of the Association of Racing Commissioners International’s 88th Annual Conference on Safe Horses and Honest Sport, some industry insiders, including National Thoroughbred Racing Association chief Tom Rooney and ARCI head Ed Martin, were asked their thoughts on what horse racing will look like in five years. 

Tom Rooney, the former Congressman who recently became NTRA president and CEO, noted that his family owned regional thoroughbred, harness and greyhound tracks that now are closed, with the exception of Yonkers Raceway, now a racino owned by the MGM conglomerate.

“So I understand where we’ve been in this industry,” said Rooney, whose family most famously owns the Pittsburgh Steelers. “… I am optimistic, but I’m also realistic as to where we could be. I’ve come to learn also that horse racing is a very small town. You know, people talk people behind each other’s back. It doesn’t take long for it to get back to people. There’s animosity, almost like tribalism in our industry. But then there’s also some very good people who are looking out for our future and what’s best for us: How we can get from where we are now to a better place in five years?”

Rooney said he’s spent his first months on the job going around to racetracks and just listening.

“To listen to people like you (the state regulators) and understanding what your concerns are,” he said. “I know there are a lot of very strong opinions in this room. It’s my job to understand what those are, so that together we are moving toward where we are in five years — and it’s not at the expense of one part of our industry for the benefit of another. It’s for all of us to move forward.”

Rooney said he knows from his time in Congress that even if HISA enacts laws that will apply across the country, states can still add more regulations on trainers or racetracks.

“That’s absolutely part of our Constitutional system,” he said. “So the relevance of the racing commissioners, and how you conduct your business state by state is not any less important. What is the law is that there are uniform standards and uniform basic requirements. So that when a horse goes state to state, a trainer knows at the very least that these standards in place in Florida are going to be the same standards in New York or Maryland.”

Rooney concluded saying that horse racing must become part of the expansion of legalized sports wagering.

“My son is a sophomore at Lehigh University,” he said. “He’ll tell me, ‘Dad, people are betting on women’s Chinese basketball at 3 a.m. because they’re allowed to. Or Bulgarian tennis.’ If horse racing isn’t part of that, that’s a huge problem. We can have great days at the Sunland Derby, the Preakness, the Travers or whatever. But we also have to be in the conversation when he’s betting the Sixers or Villanova – ‘Dad, who’s going to win the Florida Derby today? If I parlay that on my $20 bet, it will boost (the potential payoff) to $1,000.’

“We have to be part of that. If we aren’t, we’re going to miss out on a whole new generation of bettors who are getting involved with FanDuel or Draft Kings or any of the other platforms out there. We have to adapt.… It’s our responsibility together to make sure horse racing is part of the future and not part of what we’ve seen happen too often in this country in the past” with closures.

ARCI’s President and CEO Ed Martin also participated in the luncheon panel. He said that in five years, “I’d like to see a sport where we’re not fighting with each other over things, policies,” emphasizing there’s so much wonderful about horse racing.

Martin noted that the HISA legislation was attached to a “must pass” bill, in this case the $1.5 trillion COVID relief omnibus bill approved by Congress in December 2020. Drawing on his 10 years as a senior aide on Capitol Hill earlier in his career, Martin said such must-pass bills are known as Christmas trees. “And we’d try to hang a Christmas ornament on it,” he said. 

“It was part of a must-pass piece of legislation that most members probably didn’t digest the details,” Martin said in follow-up comments. “But what troubled me most was that it was attached to a $1.5 trillion spending bill where the federal government was literally throwing money out the window at all sorts of things, and the sponsors of the bill didn’t provide one penny for horse racing (to implement the federally mandated HISA). If they had provided funding, say $50 million, it would have really helped the sport, would have helped HISA. But Senator (Mitch) McConnell didn’t give it a dime.”

He noted at the panel that the federal government gives the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency $9 million a year “to do like 13,000 drug tests. What are we doing? Over 200,000 drug tests?” he said.