HomeHorse RacingHorse Racing Follows NFL's Lead with Safety Runs First Campaign

Horse Racing Follows NFL’s Lead with Safety Runs First Campaign

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The National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) announced April 23 its new Safety Runs First campaign, an initiative and corresponding website to promote the sport’s collective commitment to safety, welfare, and integrity that they began working on in October.

Eyes around the world will be on Churchill Downs for the next 11 days as the track gears up for the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve. Following a 2023 Derby week that saw a number of equine deaths, many will be asking what has changed.

To get ahead of those questions, the NTRA created this initiative to help combat negative messaging from groups that oppose the sport.

NTRA president and CEO Tom Rooney hopes that this new campaign will give the general public a greater understanding of the changes being made to make the sport safer. He talked with BloodHorse about the campaign, the influence it received from the National Football League, and the overall importance of improving safety in the sport.

BloodHorse: Why did the NTRA decide to create the Safety Runs First campaign?

Tom Rooney: Our board is made up of a lot of tracks, but also Breeders’ Cup, The Jockey Club, and the like. One of the things that I have said before and we talked about at our board meetings is when there’s an organized opposition against you, you have to have an organized response. Recoiling into a defensive position all the time doesn’t work. It allows the other side to dictate the narrative. We’ve been talking about going to a place where we can not only celebrate our sport, but also defend what we’re doing and be able to respond when something does go wrong in a way that’s not defensive. (Show) the things that we’re doing to address issues of safety in our sport. That way, when fans or critics ask questions or are critical, you can point to something definitive that we are doing to try to improve. Otherwise, people think that you aren’t trying to improve. That’s the worst-case scenario, and that’s not true.

BH: What inspiration was there for creating the campaign?

TR: You have the idea after the Super Bowl when you saw those ads on TV; what the NFL was doing to show what they’re trying to accomplish with safety. With the equipment, with the new rules – we just saw a new rule change with the kickoffs – that’s going to show the public that they are trying to not only improve the game but make it as safe as possible to reduce things like concussions. We thought it would be a good thing in horse racing to do something similar in advance of the Derby.

BH: Why is the lead-up to Derby the most important time to release this project?

TR: (We need to show that) this is the reality of what we’re doing so that people see that we’re responding. (The campaign) is a response to that and, during the Derby season, an affirmative statement as to what the sport that they love is doing to make it better.

BH: Why should this campaign be an important thing to support for those within the industry?

TR: I think it’s for people that are involved in the sport as much as people that are critical, so that they feel like they’re getting coverage from the leadership of the sport. The people that are on my board, we’ve all gotten together to pool our resources to do an initial effort that hopefully expands as time goes on.

BH: What is the importance of having an online presence supporting the sport?

TR: We’ll start seeing ads not only on TV, but across social media, which is almost as important when it comes to getting your message out there effectively to just be in people’s minds as something other than what they might see from an organized opposition group. (Opposition groups) are very well organized. One of the reasons they’re so impactful is that they have a readymade group of people that are willing to comment on any article or post. When you’re in a sport like ours where there’s so many different people involved, it’s hard to get that kind of coordination to respond. Then what you might have is 20 comments negative and one comment positive. If some casual observers look, it’s like ‘Man, horse racing is in trouble.’ The reality is it’s not.

Look at the Derby and how many people watch it every year. You go to Saratoga, and it’ll be packed; so much so that the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness Stakes are investing in new racetracks. We just have to do a better job of taking care of the messaging, and this campaign is part of it. It deals with safety. The Kentucky Derby will do their own thing with regard to Churchill promoting the race, but if you have that, plus you have safety ads showing what we’re doing to make the racing safer, I think that those are all reinforced positive messages to put in people’s minds like, ‘Is it OK to be a fan? Yes, they’re trying to do everything that they can. Regardless of the people that just hate horse racing, I don’t hate it. I just appreciate that they’re trying to make it safer.’ That’s the goal.

BH: Where will we see this campaign being promoted?

TR: TV, radio, social media, print. There’s opportunities for an earned media element where you’re putting stuff out there on social media and that turns into a reporter calling you and asking you for an interview. You end up getting some free time for that. So, it’s both.

BH: You have mentioned football a couple of times, and obviously with your family name that’s an important industry for you. (The Rooney family has operated the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers since 1933.) What is it that football is doing that horse racing needs to model after?

TR: I always think about what people have said about football in the last 10 years, what was actually happening in football, and the changes that they’ve tried to make to make the sport safer. They always are. The new kickoff is strictly so you don’t have people running full speed down the field 45, 40 yards for mass impact. It should be safer. Nobody’s going to say that there’s a different quality of winner of the Super Bowl because of that. The risk that you take when you change rules is that somehow it’s not the same as it used to be, but you can say that for any sport.

In horse racing, we have that, too. If we make these rules changes, does it somehow diminish the Derby winner or Triple Crown winner? They still rank as the winners, and they don’t take banners down. I do rely on what we’ve gone through in football to sort of highlight the fact that it’s OK to make changes for the betterment of the sport and not lose the luster of the sport. Maybe they have the number of times that you can use the crop or that you can’t use Lasix, or maybe if they change the surface of the track someday – those are all big changes, but they’re no bigger than what’s happening in every other sport. At the end of the day, the best and the fastest horse will win and have his name recorded in record books that people can gamble on and try to win money and celebrate as a great athlete.

I think that’s the bottom line. If we can make that whole process safer, we should.

BH: Light Up Racing recently was created to try and accomplish a lot of the same goals this ad campaign is discussing. Is that something the NTRA was involved in creating or will be working with in the future?

TR: I think they organically cropped up on their own but I’m very excited about what they’re talking about. It’s no coincidence or surprise that these things are all coming together at the same time after the last couple years of racing. We have a livelihood that we all live by, and we want to protect it. The fact that the NTRA is putting together the entities of our board to fund this safety campaign, HISA becoming law, Light Up Racing popping up to do what they’re trying to do – it’s not a surprise, but the more the merrier. I’m rooting for them, and maybe down the road, there’ll be a more cooperative effort.

One of the hardest parts about getting involved in horse racing for me in the last couple of years is that everything is so spread out amongst the states, tracks, and entities. In that regard, it is different than football when you have just the NFL. You’re trying to do all the same things that other league offices are doing, but you’re not under a shield of a National Football League in the sense that you have the ability to make rules and issue sanctions for violating rules. Although with the onset of HISA, I think you’re getting closer to that kind of model.

BH: Why is it important for you to be leading this change?

TR: It’s important because of the group that I represent, and that the NTRA represents. For us to be able to show that we can come together when we need to is hugely important. For something like this, we want it to be something that people are proud of, people are happy about, and people are excited and celebrate rather than wondering if it’s OK to say that I’m a fan of horse racing. That’s how the opposition wants us to feel, and we can’t go down that road. Then we’ve all failed. There was a time not too long ago where the NFL was very much concerned about whether or not football would continue with the injuries that were happening there and who was going to play football in high school all the way up. They responded by focusing on safety.

There’s always going to be injuries, but the helmets that I wore in college were not the same helmets that my kids were wearing in high school, not even close, and neither were the rules. We’ve shown a lot of stats about how the amount of breakdowns on the tracks are diminishing. We have to put those numbers out and make sure that the public sees that despite what they might see on TV. The NFL is doing the same thing on their ad campaign and their safety campaign – show that they’re making the changes to try and reduce the amount of injuries that were driving people away from the sport. The NFL has never been bigger than it is right now. They’ve seen that it works and that it makes people feel okay about being fans. We have to do the same thing.


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