OCEANPORT, N.J. (AP) — Monmouth Park Racetrack is hoping sports gambling will save itself from the slow extinction facing much of the horse racing industry — a wager that could have a big payoff if New Jersey can successfully fend off the opposition of the Justice Department, the four major pro sports leagues and the NCAA.
The horse track is the only gambling venue in the state that has committed to offering sports betting if the state prevails in federal court, a move the track's legal adviser said could give it a leg up in pursuit of a market that could net it millions.
"If everybody says, 'We're not going to engage in this,' and there's no one willing to try something, then there's a law on your books and it doesn't come to fruition," Dennis Drazin said. "Somebody has to be willing to take the leap. Somebody has to be willing to step up to the plate."
Drazin grew up less than 10 miles from the track and is a lifelong horse racing fan who offered up the shore-area track, home to the $1 million Haskell Invitational each summer, two years ago as a trial balloon for New Jersey's sports gambling effort, a quest that has developed into a costly and drawn-out legal showdown.
Under legislation recently signed by Gov. Chris Christie, the eight Atlantic City casinos and the state's racetracks can offer sports betting. But only Monmouth Park has taken any steps to do so. None of the casinos would comment on the possibility of offering such bets.
Several casino executives told The Associated Press they are loath to do anything that might jeopardize their licenses in New Jersey or other states in which they operate. They spoke on the condition that they not be named because they do not want to reveal business strategies to competitors.
Last week, Gary Loveman, CEO of Caesars Entertainment, which owns three Atlantic City casinos, said he is strongly in favor of sports betting, in New Jersey and nationwide.
"I'm always interested in sports betting," Loveman said. "Americans over 21 ought to be able to bet on sports."
Betting on individual college and professional games is only allowed in Nevada. Delaware offers sports parlay pools, in which bettors must correctly select several games to win money.
While experts differ on whether legalized sports betting would significantly alter the current downward trajectory of the casino industry in Atlantic City, where four casinos have closed recently, its effect on the state's struggling racetracks likely would be felt immediately.
According to Drazin, Monmouth loses about $3.5 million to $4 million per year. Contrast that with the projected $75 million in annual revenues the track would realize based on $1 billion in total bets, according to estimates put together by Drazin and British bookmaking company William Hill, which has the contract to run a sports betting operation at the track. The estimates were based on betting activity in Las Vegas and Delaware and on New Jersey's demographics.
Statewide, the total handle could reach $11 billion, Drazin estimates; Monmouth's figures would jump if other racetracks and the casinos don't offer sports betting right away. Despite the court defeats, he is confident legal sports betting will eventually extend outside Nevada.
"I'm very optimistic there will come a time when sports betting is legal in this country and I want to be out there first and have Monmouth Park have an opportunity to capitalize on this revenue," he said.
New Jersey has already failed in its court challenge to a 1992 federal law that prohibits state-sponsored sports gambling, but it has re-crafted legislation based on a federal appeals court decision last year that said New Jersey wasn't prohibited from repealing its laws against sports gambling.
A federal judge in Trenton issued a temporary restraining order last week stopping Monmouth from offering sports betting and will hear arguments in three weeks on extending that ban. Lawyers on both sides will seek to parse the meaning of the appeals court's wording as the case moves forward and likely ends up back in front of the same court.
"The 3rd Circuit will be interpreting its prior statement; you have the language but what does it mean?" said Daniel Wallach, a Florida-based lawyer who specializes in the gambling industry. "They could say they were playing devil's advocate. It's difficult to predict how it's going to resolve itself, but I think New Jersey has a pretty good shot at it."
Associated Press writer Wayne Parry in Atlantic City contributed to this report.