Cherry Hill Might Just Get A NJ Sports Betting Parlor After All

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Only one racetrack, Freehold Raceway, and one Atlantic City casino, Caesars, which has a sister property in Bally’s next door, have yet to offer sports betting in New Jersey.

Is that the extent of possible new sites for sports betting? Not quite. Not only is the former site of Garden State Park in Cherry Hill – a suburb of Philadelphia – eligible for sports betting, a real estate developer there says a parlor could be open within 90 days.

Setting aside legal challenges for a moment – and those challenges are significant – how did this loophole come in?

Former state Senator Ray Lesniak provides NJ Online Gambling with the answer.

Lesniak said Monday that before he sponsored a five-year-old bill to loop in the Cherry Hill site, he received an analysis from a Nevada firm indicating that a sports betting parlor in Cherry Hill would provide a substantial economic benefit to the state.

“It was an untapped market,” said Lesniak, who added that there were several scenarios in play.

The opening of Philadelphia sportsbooks, which has now happened, could mean the loss of New Jersey discretionary income to Pennsylvania for those living closer to Philly than Atlantic City (assuming those South Jersey residents aren’t willing to legally bet online). And if Pennsylvania had not opened sportsbooks, a Cherry Hill site could have lured Keystone State dollars into New Jersey.

“I still believe in the revenue potential for that site,” Lesniak said, noting the affluent demographics of the area.

Sports betting parlors all over New Jersey?

The original legislation contemplated sportsbooks at any New Jersey site of a former racetrack, which could have put Ho-Ho-Kus, a bedroom community in northern Bergen County that hosted horse racing in the mid-1800s, in play.

A revised and final version of the law allows for such gambling on the site of racetracks that still operated within 15 years of the 2014 passage. Garden State Park, which closed in mid-2001, qualified.

So does Atlantic City Race Course also qualifies, but Lesniak said neither that site nor Ho-Ho-Kus was in the plans.

“Sometimes bills or laws have unintended consequences,” Lesniak said.

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The carveout for the strip mall’s developers – influential real estate moguls Jack Morris and Joe Marino – led some observers to conclude that the deal had the fingerprints of powerful South Jersey political boss George Norcross.

“I never talked to Norcross about this, and anyone who thinks I did is totally wrong,” Lesniak said.

As for the likelihood of the Garden State Park betting parlor? As with most Jersey matters, it’s complicated.

Greenwood Racing, which also happens to own Parx Casino near Philadelphia and off-track wagering sites in Philadelphia and Valley Forge, gained a restrictive covenant on the overall site when it bought the ailing track in 1999 that permits only Greenwood to offer gambling there.

But the state law only allows for gambling within the oval of the former racetrack, and Cherry Hill Towne Center Partners LLC owns that slice of land. Greenwood currently controls only 10 acres of the site.

The legal battle escalates

Mall site attorneys have argued that the attempt to deny the opening of a sports betting parlor in Cherry Hill is “a blatant attempt to restrain competition so they can secure a monopoly for their own sports wagering operations in the greater Philadelphia area.”

The December filing adds that “this State has expressed a strong desire to legalize sports wagering at a limited number of locations within its borders. Responding Defendants seek to frustrate the State’s goals by relying on an outdated covenant that was never intended to prohibit such activities.”

The restriction, the attorneys say, was really intended to prevent opening of a horse racing simulcasting site or a slot machine parlor – not sports betting, which was not mentioned in large part because it was illegal in the state at the time.

“If the Court concludes that the Declaration is reasonable and that it prohibits sports wagering at the GSP Property, the total number of available locales will dramatically decrease,” attorney William Tambussi wrote. “Residents of South Jersey will be deprived of a convenient location to wager on professional or collegiate sporting events, and the State will be deprived of a location at which to collect tax revenue.”

The comments by Morris to ROI-NJ on Friday – including one in which he says, “We are going to have great drinks and opportunity for people to come and socialize – this is not going to be a place where you just come and place your bets,” drew the attention of attorney Roberto Rivera-Soto, a former New Jersey state Supreme Court Justice who represents Greenwood Racing.

Rivera-Soto informed a U.S. District Court judge that “if the information in that online article is correct, plaintiff [Morris and Marino] is engaging in self-help in the face of a pending motion for a preliminary injunction.”

The attorney added that Greenwood Racing is “ready to assist in aiding the Court in entering the requested preliminary injunction and in enforcing its terms.”

It sounds like another endless legal saga. But Lesniak, a renowned attorney in the state who has been enlisted by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney in battling the Department of Justice over a recent reinterpretation of The Wire Act, said that realistically, the circumstances should create incentive for both sides to reach a settlement.

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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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