ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — Republican Gov. Chris Christie's administration issued a directive Monday allowing the state's casinos and racetracks to offer sports betting, a move likely to be challenged in court by sports leagues.
The governor said he took his cue from previous federal court rulings that found that nothing in New Jersey law prohibits the casinos and horse racing tracks from offering sports betting, so long as it's not sponsored or licensed by the state.
Soon afterward, one racetrack, Monmouth Park in Oceanport, said it was preparing to offer sports bets "in the very, very near future."
New Jersey's action, through the state attorney general's office, is likely to be challenged by the professional and collegiate sports leagues that fought its efforts to overturn a ban on sports betting in all but four states. That effort ended with the U.S. Supreme Court declining to hear the case.
Christie suggested casinos and tracks could start offering betting immediately, but it's unclear if that will happen. Rachel Ryan, a spokeswoman for the Meadowlands Racetrack, said Monday that the track has no plans to offer sports betting now. Several casino executives said they had no immediate plans to offer it or declined to comment.
The professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey leagues and the National Collegiate Athletic Association opposed New Jersey's effort to legalize sports betting, saying it could give the appearance that the integrity of the games has been compromised.
An NFL spokesman declined to comment Monday. The other leagues and the NCAA did not immediately return messages.
The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on the matter.
Christie, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, also had the state file a motion in federal court asking a judge to clarify or modify a February 2013 ruling that blocks a licensing program New Jersey had passed for sports betting in the state.
The governor said sports betting is legal under previous federal rulings as long as wagers don't involve a collegiate game played in New Jersey or a New Jersey college team elsewhere in the country.
"Victory at last!" said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, one of the legislature's strongest supporters of sports betting. "People should book their hotel rooms in Atlantic City for the Super Bowl now because there won't be any available in February."
Lesniak said he expects the leagues to challenge the move but predicted: "They don't have any arguments left to make. This is all over but the shouting."
Atlantic City lawyer Lloyd D. Levenson, whose firm works for casinos, said he expects the casinos to wait for a further court ruling before they launch sports betting but that they'll begin setting up an infrastructure for it now.
The move is a turnaround for Christie, who supported allowing sports gambling previously but seemed resigned to defeat once the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear New Jersey's appeal in June, saying, "You know, that's the way it goes."
A month ago, Christie vetoed a bill that would have pushed New Jersey to circumvent the federal ban on gambling on professional and college sports.
Voters in New Jersey overwhelmingly endorsed legal sports betting in a nonbinding referendum in 2011. State lawmakers soon enacted a law to allow betting at tracks and casinos. But those actions ran up against the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, enacted by Congress to restrict betting on sports to a few states. Nevada has allowed betting on sports for more than 60 years, and Delaware, Montana and Oregon have at times permitted more limited betting. New Jersey missed a 1991 deadline in the law that would have allowed sports betting in Atlantic City.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC
Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton contributed to this report.