Tom Rooney, a former Congressman, a lawyer and an Army veteran, was hired to take over as the top man at the NTRA because the NTRA Board knew he could make a difference in Washington. Some two years later and with the swinging pendulum that is the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA), Rooney has his hands full. This week, Rooney sat down with the team on the TDN Writers' Room podcast presented by Keeneland to discuss what he and his staff are doing to advocate for the sport. Rooney was the Green Group Guest of the Week.
The NTRA is pro-HISA, which means that Rooney was working behind the scenes to lobby lawmakers to back legislation in which language that covered HISA was changed so that it would satisfy issues brought up by a federal appeals court that declared that HISA was unconstitutional. Had the language not been changed, HISA very well could have been dead. Rooney said his efforts included discussions with both Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer. Ultimately, the NTRA and pro-HISA forces got their wish.
“[Schumer and McConnell] both recognized that it was important for our industry to have uniform standards and to have racetrack safety and accountability and integrity for us to move forward,” Rooney said. “We made it incumbent upon those two men especially that we needed this language fixed and we were able to get it done despite a pretty good opposition with regard to people that opposed HISA. So we had to work very hard to make sure that we pressed the issue again with those two men and the rest of the members that were going to vote that had problems with it. I was making phone calls days before to members of the Senate that I'm friends with explaining this to them. A lot of people just didn't know what it meant. They thought it meant more of a government overreach rather than something that would help our industry. And I think that once they understood that, they moved on to the next thing.”
Despite his success, Rooney said he was worried that his efforts would fall short.
“I was not optimistic at all,” he said. “I think I told the people on the phone call that we met with on a daily basis or a weekly basis that we probably had a 5% chance of success.”
The key now, is whether or not the new language will mean that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will be satisfied when it comes to the constitutionality issues and allow HISA to proceed.
“I'm confident and that's because I think that we addressed exactly what the court's problems were,” Rooney said. “There is going to be litigation and there's going to be shots taken in other parts of the bill that don't have to do with the ruling. I don't think that those are fatal. And even if they were ruled against, I think that they could be separated without having to try again with a legislative fix, which would be even more difficult with this Congress.”
Looking to the future, Rooney said horse racing needs to join forces with sports betting websites so that their customers can bet on racing and be exposed to the sport. Currently, most on-line wagering on racing is restricted to the traditional ADW outlets like TwinSpires, TVG and XpressBet and sports bettors do not have access to racing.
“The one thing that I'm focused on which will help reach the next generation is what I can do at the federal level to try to get what's called a single wallet on the sports betting apps,” he said. “One of my biggest focuses for the sake of the gambler is to try to figure out a way to integrate horse racing, which, as you all know, was the only legal sport in our country to gamble on for the longest time. And now we're competing in certain states with all sports. FanDuel is one of my board members, and we were able to work with them to get horse racing on a FanDuel shared application. So you don't have to go off one app to get on another one…I remember my son asking me, 'Dad, who's going to win the Kentucky Derby? And then he's like, 'Why can't find it on my app?'”
Elsewhere on the podcast, which is also sponsored by Coolmore, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association, XBTV and https://www.threechimneys.com/ West Point Thoroughbreds, Zoe Cadman, Randy Moss and Bill Finley discussed the GIII Sham S. and the incredible amount of depth the Bob Baffert has in the 3-year-old male division. Baffert finished one-two-three in the Sham and has three of the top seven horses in T.D. Thornton's Derby Top 12. There was also talk of the 2022 year-end statistics released by Equibase in which purses were up by 10.92 percent even though handle fell, by 0.87 percent. The group noted that, unfortunately, the growth of purses is attributable not to growth of the sport but solely to outside revenue from casino games. The podcastended on an upbeat note with a discussion of the remarkable recovery of jockey Joree Scriver after it was feared she was paralyzed in a spill at Sunland Park.