By Alayna Cullen
Monmouth Park and New Jersey have been making headlines in recent years for their attempts to legalize sports wagering in the state. Despite numerous losses, there appears to be an end in sight with the case having been heard in the Supreme Court in December last year. It now appears to be more a question of which of two outcomes will be passed, one being a partial repeal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) of 1992 or one stating that PASPA is unconstitutional. Dennis Drazin, CEO of Monmouth Park, has been living the case and he fills us in on the progress being made at the track, and the new sports book Monmouth has built in conjunction with William Hill, as the state awaits the result of the Supreme Court hearing.
Alayna Cullen: Dennis, you’ve been facing a bit of an uphill battle which has been going on for some years now, trying to get sports wagering legalized in the State of New Jersey. Why has it been so important for you?
Dennis Drazin: It’s important for me because I’ve been involved in horse racing my whole life. I’ve worked for the horsemen for many, many years, first as their legislative counsel, then as their general counsel, then as the president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association. After that, I became chairman of the New Jersey Racing Commission. I resigned from the racing commission with the blessing of the governor when he wanted to privatize the race track so I could lead the horsemen in leasing the track and privatizing it. For me, this is about saving an industry. We have a Thoroughbred industry in New Jersey as well as a Standardbred industry. Horses are very important to the state. The state animal is the horse. What racing represents in the state is 13,000 jobs, 176,000 acres of preserved and open lands, which otherwise might be developed and lost to open space. It’s a $4-billion industry in terms of its value that produces an economic benefit for New Jersey of $1.1 billion a year. It’s crucial that this industry survives. For me, it’s very personal, trying to do what I can to save this industry and right now, we’re confronted with the declining industry. There are casinos and slot revenue in all the surrounding states around our borders. Those states have been able to make their purses higher. We have not been able to expand casinos outside of Atlantic City. We now have an opportunity for sports betting to bring in revenue.
AC: The case was heard by the Supreme Court in December last year. How are you feeling about the outcome right now?
DD: This has been a long struggle. We’re doing this for five or six years now. At every stage, we’ve lost. Now I’m positive we’re going to win. The legal scholars say we’re cautiously optimist and the governor says we’re cautiously optimistic and those are good terms to use, but I’ve lived this case. I was there at the arguments. I know that I walked out of this argument being certain that we won the case based upon the questions and the dialogue that was going on between the justices and counsel. We’re at a point where I can tell you in my mind that we will certainly win this case. I can’t tell you which way we’ll win it. There are two different ways we can win this case. One is the partial repeal, one is that PASPA is unconstitutional. Either way we will win this case.
AC: Despite the hold ups, you’ve gone ahead and built the sports bar at Monmouth Park. Can you tell us what it offers?
DD: This room was built in 2013 and part of our deal with William Hill involved the construction costs for this room. When we first opened, we modeled it into a sports bar. It had been just a cafeteria before that. We started to do something called free play so we could start accumulating a database and get people used to the venue. The next thing that we did here was to start showing fantasy sports. Everyone in the country was engaged in fantasy sports so we thought that was another way to accumulate a database and get people used to the venue. After that, we opened it as a full blown sports bar where from Thursdays through Monday, whenever a game is on or there is horse racing, this bar is open. We finished building the kitchen so you can eat here as well as watching the games. One of the good things that people tell me about here, the food is great, number one, and the venue itself is something that people feel is user friendly. They like being in the room. Right now we have the horse racing opportunity for betting and they can do that while they’re watching the game. The other thing we have that other places don’t is parking. We have enough parking to accommodate 60,000 people at a time.
Click below to hear from Dennis Drazin as Monmouth Park prepares for the likely arrival of sports betting:
AC: You’ve mentioned William Hill as your sponsor here. Why did you choose William Hill?
DD: Originally when sports betting became a reality in terms of the ballot question, we were approached by probably 12 to 15 different companies around the world. I felt that William Hill was the best candidate in offering us what I thought was a very fair deal but it started with this: I talked to my team here at the racetrack and the first question was, someone is walking into our facility, they want to bet $100,000 on some game in the Midwest that we know nothing about, we don’t even know the players or the teams. We can see their records but don’t know much more than that, do you want to take that bet? We decided we needed someone to manage the risk because if we took all these bets on games that we didn’t know anything about, we could lose a lot of money and we didn’t want to do that. William Hill will manage the risk. They have experience at this. They have a track record. We feel very comfortable with them as our sports book manager.
AC: You’re expanding the facility to the grandstand. Can you just go into a bit more detail about what expansion plans you have?
DD: We’re renovating the entire grandstand in order to have ticket riders that will be where our tellers were. You’ll see the long strip of banks and countertops where there will be machines and you can probably hold between 5,000 and 7,500 people in that grandstand area to not only bet on sporting events but to have the ability to bet on horse racing also. That area will be made more comfortable, some lounge areas to let people come and stay and enjoy and be able to eat and drink and have some camaraderie. Everyone likes to view sports differently. Some people like to sit in their home, not have anyone bother them and watch the screen. A lot of people in this country want the camaraderie. They want the social experience. They want to cheer for the teams or against their friends. We’re trying to do everything that we can to make sure that fans that come here have a good experience. We want them to come to Monmouth Park and kind of feel like this is their home base, this is where they’re coming to engage in sports betting and horse racing.
AC: Have you seen a lot of cross over since this facility has been built? Do people actually come in for the racing?
DD: There are a lot of people that come here for the racing now because this is an environment that they like. This environment when the racetrack is open, it fills up. You can come here on any weekend when we have racing going on and you’ll find this room very active in terms of the wagering that’s going on.
AC: We’re waiting on the decision, which will hopefully come in the next month or two. If it is positive, how quickly can you move on getting all the machinery in and publicizing it?
DD: I think the publicizing is out there already. Throughout the state, Monmouth Park already has set the image of being the first to start. Because we’re bound by looking at what the Supreme Court is going to do, in terms of how we win, whether it’s a partial repeal or that PAPSA is unconstitutional, we need to figure out a few things. Our timeline right now is to be open for betting two weeks after the Supreme Court makes a decision. We’ve done pretty much everything that we need to do to get ready except for a few final items that we just need to look at [depending on which outcome it is]. Until that date comes, you don’t know every detail, that’s why the two-week window. You really should do this the right way so the plan is, once the decision comes out, get our ducks in a row and probably about two weeks afterwards open full scale and be ready to go in a formal setting. In reality, if I wanted to, I could start taking bets the next day, legally. Of course, in that scenario I’d probably be at the counter myself taking the bets, writing them on slips of paper which isn’t the right way to start.
AC: This should have huge benefits for Monmouth Park and New Jersey as a whole, but figures wise, how much is going to come back into racing that you can then put back into industry? Do you have an idea of the figures?
DD: I do, but it depends on what the Supreme Court says and then how New Jersey reacts to that. What I can tell you is nobody is really on the same page with the numbers. These are illegal markets. I’ve seen some estimates as high as $400 billion a year, some as low as $150 billion a year, but what we do think, from the experts, is that because of our demographics and because of comparisons that we can draw to Nevada, we think the market in New Jersey is about $10 billion. At the end of the day, when I talk about $10 billion it’s not how much money you make on it because that’s the money that’s being wagered. There’s a certain amount of hold or win on those wagers that would be distributed among tracks and casinos in order to further whatever their interests are. From Monmouth Park’s viewpoint, we intend to utilize its revenues to increase our purses, to add racing days, to add racing opportunities, to be able to be more competitive in the region. We’re going to put most of the money back into racing because that’s the right thing to do.