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Meet Dennis Drazin, Slayer Of The Nevada Sports Betting Monopoly

The multi-year effort by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, state Senator Ray Lesniak, and Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin to eliminate Nevada’s virtual sports betting monopoly in the U.S. can fairly be described as “audacious.”

But for Drazin, whose track plays host to the nationally-televised, $1 million Haskell race on Sunday, it was just another example of what he calls his “tenacious” personality.

Or should we say “bodacious?” Because Drazin and business partner John Kimmel said just that three decades ago.

“We were young, single playboys, so we thought it would be clever to name a horse ‘Bodacious Tatas,'” Drazin told NJ Online Gambling on Tuesday. “We once handed out 1,000 ‘I love Bodacious Tatas’ T-shirts at a race for free. Everybody wanted one.”

Bodacious, whose name somehow passed the standards board of the Jockey Club (the name registry for U.S. thoroughbreds), was more than just a filly with an offbeat name. In 1989, she won the prestigious $150,000 Molly Pitcher Handicap at Monmouth Park, paying $29.20 to win, as one of 11 wins in 57 career starts.

The times, they have a-changed

Asked if that would have been a wise choice of name in 2018, Drazin hesitated briefly.

“I think in this day and age, I would have second thoughts,” Drazin said wryly.

So no Bodacious Tatas, no Ophelia Tatas (a half-sister whose name initially got past the Jockey Club before Drazin had to settle for “Ophelia T”), and perhaps no Cunning Stunt (a horse-name nightmare for a track racing announcer whose name is credited to Kimmel’s flamboyant father, Caesar).

The link between the naming of Bodacious Tatas and the New Jersey sports betting case is that when Drazin gets an idea, even an unlikely one, he is determined to see it through.

While the 2012 state law that legalized sports betting enabled any state racetrack or casino to offer it, the state thoroughbred horsemen stood alone in becoming an intervenor in the subsequent lawsuit filed by the NCAA, NFL, and three other pro sports leagues.

“I was the only one willing to take the challenge, in part because I was in a unique position where I was the one who didn’t have a license in other states so that would not be an issue,” Drazin said.

Court losses piled up

The state and the horsemen lost twice at the U.S. District Court level as Judge Michael Shipp — brother of former Arizona Cardinals running back Marcel Shipp — ruled against them. So did a pair of U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals panels — both by a 2-1 margin — and an “en banc” Third Circuit full panel that found for the leagues by a 9-3 margin. The U.S. Supreme Court also declined to take the original case.

Did Drazin ever think it just wasn’t meant to be?

“I never thought that,” said Drazin, an attorney in his other life. “From the first decision, I could see a road map to winning if we just stuck to the game plan. I knew that on an intellectual level, if we could just get the case before the Supreme Court, we couldn’t lose.”

A year ago, the Court took the unusual step of asking the U.S. Solicitor General’s counsel whether the issues in the sports betting case were worthy of the Court’s time. The answer was “no” — and the Court very rarely ignores such a recommendation, either way.

But it did last year, leading to a Dec. 4 hearing in Washington, D.C.

“In every other hearing, I came in confident but left knowing that we had lost,” Drazin said. “But after that Supreme Court hearing, I knew we had it won.”

Victory was at hand

Drazin was so certain that he began spending money in January to expand the Monmouth Park grandstand to handle what he saw as the inevitable — the arrival of sports bettors alongside his long-term horse racing customers.

In May, the Supreme Court by a 6-3 margin struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992. finding that the law impermissibly “commandeered'” states in doing the federal government’s bidding. That paved the way for any state to offer Las Vegas-style sports betting.

And if the Court had ruled the other way? Drazin said that he would have stepped up lobbying efforts in the Trenton statehouse to invoke “the nuclear option.” Attorneys for the plaintiffs and several judges all agreed throughout the case that (in theory, anyway) there was no federal prohibition that would have stopped New Jersey from erasing its gambling laws in their entirety.

“We would have just moved right ahead on that,” Drazin said.

That sort of relentlessness made him admired by Lesniak, who had his own well-known bulldog style while serving in the state Senate for decades.

“There are not many people I would say this about, but he is as tenacious as I am,” said Lesniak, who will attend the Haskell in part to collect $275 on his $50 bet on France to win the World Cup soccer tournament. “He might be more tenacious.”

Law and the horse — of course

The intersection of the law and being in the horse racing business might not seem like an obvious one, but it was to Drazin, whose father Louis had the same dual passions.

“My father first took me to the track, I guess it was 1968,” said Drazin, 66. “It was love at first sight for me.”

By 1975, recently-graduated 20-somethings Drazin and Kimmel decided they wanted to put up $25,000 apiece to get in on a stallion. Drazin said that both of their fathers, however, insisted that such an investment would be foolish. So they had to pass.

The horse was Mr. Prospector, a legendary horse who sired 182 stakes winners and who was re-syndicated in 1980 for $20 million.

As usual, Drazin was unfazed. He settled into work at his father’s personal-injury law firm, Drazin & Warshaw.

“I was a surfer, but I wasn’t allowed to surf until I had worked 40 hours for what I think was $15 a week,” Drazin said. “I always wanted to be a lawyer.”

Building up a stable

In the 1980s Drazin and Kimmel — by now a veterinarian — rekindled the horse bug. For Drazin, a combination of race and breeding horses grew at one point to as many as 150 (his holdings now stand at 30 to 35 horses, he said).

And when Bodacious Tatas no longer raced, Drazin bred her with a horse he owned a share of — 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. While offspring Slewdacious (what else?) never raced, the blood lines were strong enough to lead to a descendant named Sunny Ridge — Drazin’s 2016 Jersey-bred Horse of the Year.

By the late 1990s, Drazin, who already was handling political action work in Trenton for trial lawyers group, was asked by the state’s thoroughbred horsemen to do the same for them as legislative counsel and then general counsel.

“I understood how things happen in Trenton, and how to work both sides of the aisle,” Drazin said.

As the state’s horse racing industry continued to flounder in the 2000s, Drazin kept his hand in the racing game before becoming chairman of the state Racing Commission in 2009.

Monmouth Park in peril

In 2011, Governor Christie first planned to pull the plug on the state-owned Meadowlands Racetrack and consolidate standardbred and thoroughbred racing at Monmouth Park.

But before the year was over, Monmouth Park, too, was in the crosshairs. An attempt by real estate, casino, and horse racing mogul Morris Bailey collapsed in early December 2011.

That proved a bit inconvenient for Drazin, who was asked by the thoroughbred horsemen to intervene in place of Bailey.

“I got married for the first time on New Year’s Eve in 2011,” Drazin said. “We almost put off the wedding, but instead I spent time on my honeymoon in Hawaii making phone calls all those [six] time zones away.”

In 2012, privatization of Monmouth Park (and the Meadowlands, to Jeff Gural) was completed. Although the goal of bringing slot machines at the tracks, turning them into racinos, and setting aside a sliver of slot revenues for racing purses has proven unsuccessful, Drazin saw some hope of eventually bringing sports betting to the racetrack he operates for the thoroughbred horsemen.

That dream became a reality on June 14.

And on Sunday, a half-century of Haskell Days will feature a first-time gambling wrinkle that may provide enough revenue to boost purses, racing dates, and racing quality in 2019 and beyond.

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.