Is Cherry Hill The Next Off-Track Wagering Site in New Jersey?

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A long, long time ago — 2001, in fact — a new law in New Jersey allowed for development of 15 off-track wagering sites across the state. (The same law made legal the option of betting by phone or over the internet.)

The idea for the so-called “OTWs” was to create jobs, stimulate interest in horse race betting, and provide convenient options closer to bettors than the five state racetracks open at the time.

Fast forward 19 years, and now New Jersey may finally get its eighth OTW out of 15.

On Tuesday, the planning board in Cherry Hill in Camden County approved a 30,000-square-foot facility. (See rendering pictured above.) A number of procedural steps are still to come, so an executive for Penn National Gaming declined to speculate on an opening date.

What’s taking so long with these OTWs? The reasons for delays have changed over the years, but “Not In My Backyard” opposition has played a key role. A decade ago, Mahwah, Green Brook, and Bridgewater all said “Thanks, but no thanks” to the facilities.

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That’s even though the sites operating in Bayonne, Toms River, Woodbridge, Gloucester, Hillsborough, Egg Harbor, and Vineland mostly resemble a typical sports bar.

But another reason is that track operators, who took over the reins from the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority when the Meadowlands Racetrack and Monmouth Park were privatized in 2001, have somewhat different goals from legislators.

The one thing that would jumpstart more OTW sites

Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin told NJ Online Gambling that he supports the idea of more OTWs, but he’s not surprised by the slow pace.

“You have to consider all the forms of gambling we have now in the state, with so many competitors,” Drazin said. “There is only so much gaming dollar available, and you have to consider if opening a new site is just moving money around from one place to to another.”

Drazin said that even when an OTW opened in 2012 in Bayonne — almost an hour north of his Oceanport track — there was a noticeable impact because some simulcast bettors who lived between the two facilities chose to go to Bayonne instead.

“If you can find a suitable area for an OTW, it can have a modestly beneficial impact on us,” Drazin said.

The real jolt both in terms of current and future OTW sites, Drazin said, would be if the state also allowed for classic Las Vegas-style sports betting at the off-track sites. Currently that can only occur at the Meadowlands Racetrack, Monmouth Park, and at Atlantic City casinos, leaving significant portions of the state’s population without a nearby location to place a bet if they don’t want to gamble online.

“If you put sports betting in, all of them would be very successful,” Drazin said, though he added that it appears such a change would have to be approved by voters in a referendum.

Legislators have made periodic attempts to force the hands of track operators to open more OTWs, which have been met by resistance each time.

So legislators — some of whom have complained about the situation since 2003, as I have chronicled — may have to accept the idea that all 15 facilities may never get built.

The other Cherry Hill gambling effort

The preliminary approval of the plan for an OTW at Cherry Hill, on a 10-acre site at Route 70 West, is not directly (and perhaps not even indirectly) related to a lawsuit between the former operators of Garden State Park in Cherry Hill and the current owners of the mall that was built where the defunct racetrack used to be.

In that two-year-old case, a judge last fall gave the former operators — GS Park Racing and Greenwood Racing — a preliminary court victory by finding that those partners “will likely prevail” on the grounds that a 20-year covenant preventing the current owners from offering sports betting is valid.

The case has yet to be settled, but if the status quo remains, GS Park and Greenwood would be the ones entitled to operate a sportsbook at the former track site if they choose.

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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