Why New Jersey Visionary Dennis Drazin Is Sports Betting Hall Of Fame-Bound

On the week of his Sports Betting Hall of Fame induction, we look at the crucial role Dennis Drazin played in PASPA getting overturned.
Dennis Drazin
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The Sports Betting Hall of Fame’s selection of Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin for induction at a ceremony in Manhattan this Thursday — along with former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and legendary Las Vegas bookmaker Art Manteris — is a well-earned honor for a man who, to put it simply, asked himself, “Why not?” rather than “How?”

For many years after the Professional and Amateur Sports Betting Protection Act of 1992 cemented Nevada with a status of a virtual monopoly on legal sports betting, only one, narrowly argued case — by Delaware — challenged any aspect of PASPA.

But once former state Senator Ray Lesniak began looking a decade ago for a way for New Jersey’s racetracks and Atlantic City casinos to offer sports betting, Drazin, a practicing attorney for four decades, took a close look at PASPA.

What was obvious to him — the federal government was unconstitutionally “commandeering” states to do their bidding in barring sports betting even in states that desired to offer it — guided his actions. Others, including Christie, for a time, looked at it from another angle: What’s the point of trying to defeat a well-established federal law? It’s a longshot — at best — and more likely a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The battle for betting

The Betting on Sports America event being held at the Meadowlands Convention Center this week, with a significant contingent of the more than 1,500 gaming industry visitors arriving from overseas, would not be taking place here if not for a handful of determined rebels.

After Christie signed a state sports betting bill into law in January 2012, five sports organizations sued the state, and Christie, in federal court seven months later. State officials fought the battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in May 2018 six of the nine justices found that PASPA indeed impermissibly commandeered most states into enforcing a ban on sports betting.

In other words, Drazin was right all along.

That ruling has led to Las Vegas-style betting in seven more states, with a number of others potentially following this year.

NJ horsemen’s impact on the case

NJ Online Gambling checked in with Drazin last week on how the state’s thoroughbred horsemen formally intervening in the case in December 2012 impacted the saga. After all, the leagues sued the state initially, and the case carried all the way through to the Supreme Court anyway. What role, then, did the horsemen play?

After a pause, Drazin replied, “I think we put a human face on a case that otherwise was somewhat just the federal government suing a state government. But the stakes were much higher than that. There was the future of horse racing in the state, as well as other aspects such as preservation of open space by keeping horse farms and the potential loss of thousands of jobs.”

Drazin is right about that. As the case moved forward through the courts over the years, the horsemen always had their own independent brief alongside the state’s, basically stressing that an unfavorable ruling regarding the horsemen figured to be a fatal blow to the industry in the state. It was something to consider.

The horsemen’s involvement also helped in bringing about the state Legislature in the early going, and in the state Senate and Assembly chambers formally joining in the case as well.

It’s also worth noting that in the first U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals panel decision, it was a victory for the sports leagues by a 2-1 vote — with the majority opinion stressing that there was a way for the state to offer sports betting; the original law just wasn’t it.

And after the state and the horsemen got back to the Third Circuit and again lost, 2-1, it was clear that there were some issues that were splitting the judges. The Court even made the rare decision to take an “en banc” hearing, with a full panel of 12 judges agreeing to hear the issue. While the state/horsemen lost again, 9-3, the conflicts were never completely resolved.

All the way to the top

Most surprising of all, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear this case in mid-2017, making an extremely rare decision to ignore the recommendation of the U.S. Solicitor General that the case did not rise to be worth the Court’s precious time.

At what point along the way did the specific arguments of the horsemen — the “human element” — come into play? We’ll never know for sure. But it certainly didn’t hurt.

“From the first decision, I could see a road map to winning if we just stuck to the game plan,” Drazin said. “I knew that on an intellectual level, if we could just get the case before the Supreme Court, we couldn’t lose.”

(We wondered why the horsemen waited more than six months after the state was sued to seek permission to become an intervenor in the case. Drazin said that the state’s initial position was that the leagues didn’t even have standing to sue the state — even though, in what may be a unique case in the history of American jurisprudence, PASPA offered such specific powers to private entities. Once that effort was dismissed, the horsemen jumped into the fray. And in this case, the uncertainty of survival for the industry had to help ensure that they would be named as intervenors, given the stakes.)

Drazin’s brazen move in 2012-’14

It’s worth underscoring how certain Drazin was that this “longshot” would come in. Way back in 2012, Drazin met with William Hill US CEO Joe Asher — another early true believer — about building a sportsbook at Monmouth Park, PASPA be damned. The multimillion-dollar deal closed in May 2013, with Asher saying, “One day sports betting will be legal in New Jersey. When it is, William Hill will be there.”

It opened as a sports bar in 2014 that looked more than just vaguely like a Las Vegas-style layout.

As Drazin told The New York Times last year, “It was always going to be a sportsbook, so we envisioned that when we built it and put in the money, assuming that we would survive any legal challenge.”

It also is worth noting that while all state racetracks and casinos have benefited from the Supreme Court ruling, Drazin led the charge for all of them.

“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, referring to concerns of other tracks and casinos that “going rogue” on sports betting might rile regulators in those states (especially Nevada).

Said Lesniak of Drazin: “There are not many people I would say this about, but he is as tenacious as I am. He might be more tenacious.”

That tenacity is why he, and not other other racetrack or casino operators, is headed to the Hall of Fame — and why the state’s thoroughbred horsemen alone are in the midst of a possible $150 million windfall from their lawsuit against the five sports organizations that prevented the track from offering bets from 2014-2018.

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