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Sports betting becoming a big issue among New Jersey politicians

Jan 29, 2008 6:32 AM

There are four states in the union where sports betting is legal.

Nevada, of course, is one of the four. Delaware, Oregon and Montana are the other three, having been grandfathered because they already had sports betting when the federal government declared it illegal 15 years ago.

Now, in the Fort Sumter of a gambling rebellion, the legislators of New Jersey have fired the first shot in a civil war. They have declared war on the United States government, saying they feel certain they can overturn federal law and have things their own way. They want sports betting in New Jersey.

This is not the first time this plea for illegality was made in the New Jersey legislature. It has arisen before, and has been shot down or forgotten as a bad idea.

But now the state’s Tourism and Gaming Committee thinks the time is ripe to overthrow federal law, on grounds that it interferes with states’ rights. It voted unanimously last week to seek a state referendum that would open the door for the real rulers of New Jersey — the Atlantic City casinos — to bet on professional sports.

There are, of course, some realists left in the state, and one of them is the former governor and current president of the Senate, Richard J. Codey.

Assessing the chances of sports betting making it in the state, Codey said, "I think Appalachian State would have to beat the Giants before the federal government would allow New Jersey to change the law to permit sports betting in casinos."

The casinos are well on their way, however, to topple two other giants, the Meadowdowlands racetrack and its sister by the shore, Monmouth Park, along with nearby Freehold Raceway.

The boardwalk boys have stonewalled not only the legislature — an easy and customary thing for them to do — but also Governor Jon Corzine. He already announced the tracks would not get slots — something that could save them but the casinos oppose vigorously — but he has been negotiating trying to get them to renew the $20 million a year subsidy they have paid the tracks for their acquiesce in not having them.

Freehold and The Meadowlands, the only two New Jersey tracks now operating, recently announced huge cuts in purses, the money paid to owners of winning horses. That is critical anywhere in racing, but particularly in Jersey with new tracks opening in Pennsylvania.

All three New Jersey tracks were there before casinos were legalized, and the subsidy was in effect for the last four years before expiring at the end of 2007. The casinos do not want to renew it this year, and want to keep slots a monopoly for themselves. Interestingly enough, Las

Vegas’ name came up in the discussions last week, when a New Jersey senator named Raymond Lesniak said he is wagering that sports betting "will soon be legal in New Jersey."

In saying why, Lesniak told a reporter for 777 Gaming News, "With the biggest sporting event of the year coming up, it’s naïve to think that sports betting isn’t taking place right now in the Garden State. But because of an act of Congress, we’ve surrendered sports betting to organized crime, off-shore casinos and Las Vegas. Why should millions of dollars go to Las Vegas, offshore casinos and the mob?"

Others involved in the issue are a bit more forthright, or perhaps more clear-headed, than Senator Lesniak. One of the sponsors of the bill in the state Senate, Jeff Van Drew, admitted there was less than a 50% chance sports betting will ever come to New Jersey, but said that an effort should be made due to increased gaming competition.

Panic, it seems, has spread to the legislature, with Atlantic City casinos down from a previous year for the first time in their history, and neighboring Pennsylvania roaring ahead with its casinos recording the highest play per machine per day of any casinos in the east, mighty Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods included.

Ironically, it is Mohegan Sun’s harness track near Wilkes-Barre, The Downs at Pocono, that is leading the way, ahead of its huge parent in Connecticut with machine daily return nearing $450 each.

Concern in the legislature has not involved racing, however, and New Jersey’s proud possession, the Meadowlands, the world’s number one harness track, and its seaside thoroughbred operation at Monmouth Park, where the Breeders’ Cup races were held last fall, now are in real peril.

The next two weeks will be critical, not for sports betting, although the full legislature likely will vote on it, but for racing. If the governor does not act quickly, the tracks and the major breeding industry in New Jersey will slide down the slippery slope.