NTRA - National Thoroughbred Racing Association

09/01/2022 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 09/01/2022 09:34

NHC at the Post – September 2022

President and CEO Tom Rooney sat down with DRF's Matt Hegarty while in Saratoga this month. Excerpts of the interview are below, and the full interview can be found here.

Q & A: NTRA chief executive Tom Rooney

Q: I'm not going to start with a question. Here at Saratoga, 86 years ago, your grandfather, Art Rooney, had a rather extraordinary experience. I'll let you tell it.

A: Like everything else, it's been embellished and maybe not everything is accurate. But for the most part, it was over several days, at Saratoga and Empire City, which became Yonkers, but culminating here. Apparently, he had won so much money that the bookmakers had to stop taking bets because there wasn't any more money left. He got a police escort to the New York-Pennsylvania border, because he was carrying, as I understand, over $300,000 in cash, which back then was a lot of money. He went back to Pittsburgh and told my grandmother that they'd never have to worry about money again.

His brother had a club football team at the time, because pro football wasn't a thing yet, and he was involved in that, with a couple of his brothers. [The team] went through a couple of iterations when professional football was finally legalized in Pennsylvania [in 1933]. First, it was the Majestic Radios, which was of course a sponsorship thing. I'm thinking of naming a horse that, so hopefully no one takes it. But that led to the Pirates, and then the Steelers. So if it wasn't for this place that we are sitting at right now, the Steelers probably would have never been a thing, and second of all, I probably wouldn't have had the blessings I had to run for Congress and eventually get this job.

It's funny to look back and realize how a big heater for my grandfather here at this track translated into so much.

Q: I don't want to be presumptuous, but growing up in the family that you did, my guess is that you had a lot of opportunities when you were a young man. You got your law degree, and then you went into the army. Take me through that decision.

A: My brother had gone into the Marine Corps. We were both in law school. He told me, 'You should really think about going into the Marines.' I think I was 27 years old at the time, and I told him, 'I'm not joining the Marines.' But my namesake, my grandfather's brother, died in World War II, when he was 19. So it's always been kind of heavy on me, that Tom Rooney was killed in action on Guam.

Then, for a more pragmatic reason, I was always interested in criminal law. Those were my favorite classes in law school. And then an army recruiter came to campus, and he said, 'You can do DUIs at the state attorney's office for the next 10 years, or you can potentially have a murder case at JAG Corps in your first year.' I didn't have a murder case, but I did have a manslaughter case. But the attraction was that you had a much greater exposure to serious crimes.

I had also just married my wife, and she was interested in joining too, so we went into the army together. We went to Ft. Hood, Texas, and then I got to teach constitutional law at West Point. It was great.

Q: So after that, after some political jobs, you served 10 years as a Florida congressmen, as a Republican in what became a reliably red district. But you decided to retire in 2019 after five terms. Why did you make that decision?

A: I had always said in my first campaign and throughout my career that 10 years was probably a good run. Most people don't stick to those term-limit promises, especially because as you start to get seniority you get more power. But it was a moment in time when [Republicans] knew we were going to go back into the minority. For either party, when you are in the minority, you lose control of the floor, what comes to vote, your committees. As a freshman, being a minority, it's fine. But when you are there after 10 years and you go back to the minority, you are basically neutered, so to speak.

Also, my kids were growing up, playing on the football team, playing on the baseball team. I just didn't want to miss that.

There were various other reasons. It became more difficult to get things done [in Congress]. Things were getting very partisan on both sides of the aisle. There was very little cooperation. That may be because of social media, because of cable news going either hard to the left or hard to the right. The pragmatists were looking for the exits.

I loved it, my time in Washington. I'm not going to sit here and downplay it. But it has changed a lot even since then.

Q: So last year, the NTRA position became open with the retirement of Alex Waldrop. What attracted you to it, specifically?

A: Obviously, love of the horse. I grew up in my grandfather's and my dad's shadow. They ran racetracks in Philadelphia, Vermont, New York; they owned a stud farm in Maryland; and now, eventually, I am breeding and owning my own horses. I have a love of this place, and this sport, that goes beyond something like, 'Oh, this might be a good job.' For me, it's really personal.

I had become involved in the Maryland Horse Breeders Association [after retiring from Congress], and I had gotten to know some people through the various iterations of the HISA bill before it became HISA.

So they knew that I was into horse racing, and I had gotten to know a lot of people in the industry as a result. When Alex Waldrop retired, they called me up and said this might be a perfect job for you.

At the time, I was coaching JV football (laughs). And the only reason I was doing that is because it was during COVID, and the only way you could go to the games was if you were a coach. I was 50 years old, and I didn't want to be done. I thought I had another chapter after Congress other than just being retired.

So now I'm using my relationships I had made over those 10 years in Congress, whether it be legislators or staffers, to make sure that first of all, they know what I am doing now. But also so they know what's important to our industry. More and more, with HISA, taxes, sports betting, all of that stuff, it's bubbling up to the federal level, where it used to just be at the local, state level.

So I think it's a good thing to have someone [at the NTRA] who the politicians already know. That's why I think I am good for it.

Read the full interview here.