Thoroughbred Thoughts: Where is the Roger Goodell of Horse Racing?
With many issues camping out on the sport’s doorstep, horse racing could use a figurehead like NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Updated: April 18, 2019 • 5:56 PM ET
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has seen his fair share of controversies.
Let’s start with a premise, a proof. As a collective “we,” it’s entirely possible to have a Commissioner of Horse Racing (CHR). At this point, it’s compulsory.
Many have called for it before, including a clever slant by trainer Gary Contessa.
I’ll go one further. The sport doesn’t need just any “commish.” What the sport needs is a Roger Goodell.
I know what you might be thinking: “You’re suggesting we install someone who has controversially led one of the most powerful leagues in the history of sport?”
Love or hate him, Goodell and his position of power are reflective of how the National Football League has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar industry. His story arc placed him at this crossroads in the game and developed into a perfect scenario for the NFL. Some have called for his head at different points, implied assassination attempts and even poked fun by wearing T-shirts depicting him with a red nose.
Since his ascension to power in 2006, though, Goodell has had to weather drug scandals, deflation of football scandals, sexual abuse scandals, concussion cover-up scandals, kneeling scandals, ref scandals, and the list goes on. Through it all, Goodell has stood tall, although not always adeptly or nimbly.
He was a solid choice to head the NFL because he was born there. During the early 80s, Goodell was tutored by Pete Rozelle, one of the dominating forces in making the new NFL operate after the merger between two leagues that had similar visions. Goodell was also heavily influenced by Lamar Hunt, another of the NFL’s deans of influence.
Once Paul Tagliabue assumed the role as commissioner, Goodell rode his coattails — learning and schooling in the ways of a burgeoning era of expansion that left the strike era behind. TV rights, player contracts and new stadiums brought amazing opportunities for all. Goodell bore witness to the tidal wave that became the post-modern Super Bowl. That training put him in the right place to handle being what many believe to be the most powerful position in sports.
This is exactly what horse racing needs: a person who understands all facets of the industry, while also having the capability to steer a ship in difficult moments and through unending controversies. I think about when Rozelle handed the Lombardi Trophy to his enemy Al Davis, or when Goodell had to do the same to Tom Brady. Fortitude and challenges go hand-in-hand.
Horse racing needs a national force at the top. After years of thinking and writing about this glorious sport, I have no sense of who controls horse racing.
What’s required is a person who can make difficult decisions while balancing the needs of the many. Goodell does this carefully and politically. He talks to each owner regularly and supports their initiatives.
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Horse racing’s commissioner would need to be someone who understands all the strata, including, but not bound by, breeding, racing, betting and of course, drugs like Lasix. The mentality necessary includes someone who is part maven, part emperor, part maestro, and part magician.
Sometimes when you have disorganization, strong leadership and the ability to coalesce around specific messages can be essential. What would it take to install one?
I don’t know the answer to that.
What I do know is that regional leadership among the 38 states would necessitate the organizing of voting blocs that could elect a CHR. Horse Racing Commissions and Thoroughbred Owners Associations would need to cede their power, adopt different by-laws and understand their place in a new world.
Could this happen? Sure, but it’s unlikely. The sport is too fragmented, too disorganized and too subject to the voices of the many. I suppose this proves that democratic ideals can hinder just as much as they can help.
Maybe after Roger Goodell retires, when he turns 65-years-old, he’ll be available. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.