Racetrack officials champing at the bit as sports betting goes to the Supreme Court


Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen: Del Mar racetrack officials are queuing up with sports bettors and state governments across the country to see if New Jersey can convince the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the federal ban on sports betting.

New Jersey has for years been trying to soften the federal prohibition against sports betting in the hopes of breathing new life into the Atlantic City casino industry. Earlier this summer, the nation’s highest court finally agreed to hear its case.

Those prospects are being met with avid interest in Del Mar as both the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which owns and operates the fairgrounds, and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club (DMTC) throw their weight behind an effort to amend the state constitution in the event that New Jersey wins.

Even a tiny sliver of what is estimated to be a $400 billion industry would be enough to buoy the racetrack’s satellite wagering center, which has for years been ebbing into a slow decline.

“It’s a very low-margin business, but imagine if Surfside Race Place on a football Saturday or Sunday in November was able to offer sports wagering,” said DMTC president Josh Rubenstein. “The amount of people that would be there is significant. And you’re picking up parking revenue, food and beverage. And from a racing standpoint we look at it as an opportunity to open our sport to a whole new base of people who are not necessarily horseracing fans currently.”

New Jersey’s case is called Christie vs. National Collegiate Athletics Association. In it, New Jersey —represented by Gov. Chris Christie — argues that the 1992 federal law that prohibits sports betting in all states other than Nevada violates the 10th Amendment because it commandeers state officials to enforce a federal ban. If New Jersey were to prevail, sports gambling would not become legal nationwide; rather, each state would be allowed to settle the issue on its own.

The NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have all in recent years signaled their support for easing the nation’s aversion to sports gambling, and the case is already being hailed as the watershed of a new epoch in sports entertainment.

The Supreme Court isn’t expected to hear the case until next year, but several states have launched efforts to be ready if the federal ban gives way.

In California that has come from Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), an avid proponent of legalizing online poker and fantasy sports. Gray proposed his bill — Assembly Constitutional Amendment 18 —the day after receiving the royal treatment from Del Mar racetrack officials on this season’s Opening Day.

“We need to crack down on illegal and unregulated online gaming and replace it with a safe and responsible option which includes safeguards against compulsive and underage gambling, money laundering and fraud,” he said in a statement announcing his bill. “All other gaming activities in California are subject to regulations that ensure the safety of consumers. Sports wagering should be treated no differently.”

The bill will need a two-thirds majority from state legislators before heading to statewide referendum.

The 22nd DAA and DMTC have long advocated for sports betting and online poker, and decided earlier this month to draft a joint letter in support of ACA 18.

“The polling that we’ve seen, there’s an overwhelming acceptance for sports wagering. People are in office pools, you see the NCAA tournament, people like to be involved in sports wagering,” Rubenstein said. “Any time you do an initiative, you never know, but again the polling we’ve seen has been very positive.”