Triple Crown triumphs: facility upgrades, audience engagement, safety standards | Opinion

Like most racing fans, every year I eagerly anticipate the Triple Crown season, from the athletic performances to the story lines to the drama of who will cross the finish line first. And while we didn’t have the excitement of a Triple Crown contender heading into the Belmont Stakes this year, we witnessed an exceptional series of races unfold with three deserving winners and their connections, people who have dedicated their lives to our sport.

Ken McPeek’s Oaks-Derby training double with Thorpedo Anna and Mystik Dan was a rare and special accomplishment. Watching “Coach” D. Wayne Lukas win his seventh Preakness and lead Seize The Grey into the winner’s enclosure on the Pimlico lawn for the colt’s hundreds of fractional owners raised goosebumps.

And Dornoch, partially owned by former Major League Baseball All-Star and World Series champion Jayson Werth, had a tenacious, surprising upset that capped off an amazing edition of the Belmont Stakes at Saratoga, where the capacity crowd was absolutely electric.

This year’s Kentucky Derby drew the largest TV audience since 1989.

Racing fans responded with record wagering handles for the Derby Day card and Derby week at Churchill Downs, a record handle for the Belmont, and an increase in handle for the Preakness over last year.

It is also worth noting that more than 500,000 people wagered on the Triple Crown races via the FanDuel sports book, a strong indication that the integration of racing into sports betting platforms can help drive new audiences to the sport.

And at each venue, we saw the importance of new investment toward modernizing and adding world-class amenities to our classic race settings, to make the experience for fans even better.

The $200 million renovation of the Churchill Downs paddock was a hallmark of the 150th Kentucky Derby, creating new premium customer experiences and a centerpiece for fans beneath the iconic twin spires. And purses in Kentucky continue to soar due to revenue from alternative gaming.

Maryland is set to fully capitalize on its opportunity for the second jewel of the Triple Crown in the years ahead, with a rejuvenated Pimlico Race Course. The state of Maryland is investing $400 million in a new state-of-the-art facility in the heart of Baltimore.

The New York Racing Association has made substantial investments in improving the customer experience at Saratoga while retaining its essential character, opening the reimagined Jim Dandy Bar in the clubhouse this year on top of the recent enhancements like the 1863 Club, with more on the horizon.

And, of course, the Belmont was held at Saratoga due to the ongoing massive makeover of Belmont Park, made possible in part by a $455 million loan from the state of New York.

Elected leaders in Kentucky, Maryland, and New York are demonstrating their appreciation for the racing industries which create jobs and important economic opportunities in their communities, while preserving beautiful, working open spaces and family farms.

And while the business results of the Triple Crown were reasons for optimism, the single most important, most encouraging result of the Triple Crown was the safe racing at all three venues.

This Triple Crown was the first time all three races were run under the jurisdiction and uniform rules of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA), racing’s new independent regulatory body. And this week, HISA announced a 38% decrease in racing-related fatal injuries for the first quarter of 2024 compared to the first quarter of 2023.

While we know we still have more work to do, this year’s Triple Crown shows that our sport is delivering on our commitment to the safety of our equine and human athletes.

HISA, enhanced veterinary protocols, deep data analysis, additional deployment of advanced diagnostic imaging technologies and expanded use of wearable biometric devices collectively hold massive promise toward making our sport even safer.

Because it is vitally important that we keep the public informed about these safety initiatives, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) launched a comprehensive awareness campaign, Safety Runs First, in conjunction with this year’s Triple Crown, to help educate the public about our commitment, investment, and ongoing efforts.

Thanks to the generous support of our members, with television, radio, digital and social media, we were able to deliver more than 185 million media impressions during this year’s Triple Crown, raising public awareness of the steps the sport is taking to create the safest environment possible for racing and training.

As we move into the second half of 2024, we will continue to act on our commitment to ensure the safest possible environments for our human and equine athletes.

We will continue to update Safety Runs First and to promote the progress we’re making, so fans and the public alike will know we are not resting on our laurels but constantly striving for improvement. And we will continue to demonstrate the love we have for these magnificent animals by surrounding them with the best ecosystem of care. We have a lot of work to do, but we also have a lot to look forward to.

Tom Rooney, National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and CEO, poses for a photo at Keeneland. Provided photo by Meghan Rodgers.
Tom Rooney, National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and CEO, poses for a photo at Keeneland. Provided photo by Meghan Rodgers.

Tom Rooney is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.