Freehold Raceway Still On The NJ Sports Betting Sidelines — But It’s Not Alone

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Once sports betting became a legal option in New Jersey in mid-2018, that opened the door for 14 brick-and-mortar sites across the state to “get in the game.”

But 18 months later, only 10 of those 14 sites are taking bets.

How come? One of the answers is simple — and the others, not so much.

While all nine Atlantic City casinos can offer the betting, one has chosen to pass. It’s Caesars, which has sister property Bally’s as its neighbor on the fabled Boardwalk.

The Bally’s sportsbook, called “The Book,” is easily the largest of the AC betting spots at more than 15,000 square feet. If a visitor checks in at Caesars and inquires at the front desk about the location of the sportsbook, they can simply be pointed next door to the Wild Wild West section of Bally’s.

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Now, on to the complicated ones.

Freehold Raceway sportsbook stalled

It’s one year ago this week that a Freehold executive told NJ Online Gambling that negotiations with potential partners for a sportsbook at the Monmouth County location were moving along relatively swiftly.

This was likely going to be a deal in which an operator serves both the track and mobile sports betting, as FanDuel does with the Meadowlands Racetrack, for example.

So what happened? The few who know seem uninterested in talking, but let’s look to the ownership of the track, which has equal owners in Penn National Gaming and Greenwood Racing, both significant players in U.S. gambling.

Penn National calls itself “North America’s largest regional gaming operator,” with 42 properties in 19 states. Penn National has a presence in the legal sports betting states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Nevada, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Mississippi, and West Virginia.

The first of Penn National’s sportsbooks opened last year in the latter two states, and the company has continued to move aggressively to make its mark in the new sports betting era.

In August, it signed a massive deal with DraftKings, PointsBet, theScore, and The Stars Group to be its online gaming partners in their multi-state atmosphere.

And Penn National isn’t done. During an Oct. 31 quarterly earnings call, incoming CEO Jay Snowden said: “We do envision having partners, potentially, that we will be thinking about how we can engage with their customers who are sports enthusiasts at this point … And of course, once they become part of our sports betting database, to introduce them to our casino product as well.”

The new partner solves what Snowden acknowledged is a challenge in the sports betting space: a lack of name recognition there, so far, for Penn National.

The company has not only been busy across the gambling sectors, but also reshuffling at the top of the executive pyramid just last week.

In subsequent public comments, Snowden has referred to meetings with more than a dozen sports media companies as well as ongoing work on a sports betting app that would be ready in 2020.

That could erase what has been a mystery to some New Jersey gambling insiders: why Penn National, which as a co-owner of Freehold is entitled to have a sports betting app in the Garden State, has not yet launched one.

There currently are 17 authorized mobile betting apps in New Jersey, out of a maximum of 42. The launch of the betting app, perhaps, would coincide with the launch of a Freehold Raceway sportsbook with the same operator.

Of course, don’t forget about Greenwood Racing, which like Penn National is based in Pennsylvania. That fact becomes relevant next.

Cherry Hill sportsbook stalled, too

New Jersey’s sports betting law allows for casinos and racetracks in the state — a dozen in all — to offer such gambling and to partner with up to three online sports betting partners as well.

But the law also “grandfathered in” the sites of two former racetracks, one of them being Garden State Park in Cherry Hill, just minutes from the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border.

One big complication: Whose sportsbook license option is it, anyway?

The law says the book can be at the former site of the track. But Greenwood Racing, the former track owner, has asserted in a court battle its 20-year-old covenant that prohibits subsequent owners of the property from offering “horse racing, simulcasting, off-track betting, wagering activities, and gambling of any sort (collectively, ‘Gaming’) anywhere on the GSP property.”

Cherry Hill Towne Center now owns the property and has claimed that the above language doesn’t prohibit sports betting specifically.

But in September, a judge leaned on the Greenwood side, saying it likely would prevail. As the link in the previous sentence notes: “The obvious compromise would be for the current owners to acquire the license, then let Greenwood Racing — which owns and operates Parx Casino and Racing in Bensalem, Pa., and also has a half-share of Freehold Raceway — run the show. Or the former owners could be compensated for erasing the covenant.”

But so far, it’s not that simple, as the case drags on into 2020.

Note: Greenwood’s Parx Casino, which now offers sports betting, is only 18 miles from the Cherry Hill site. Could that be a factor?

What about sports betting at Atlantic City Race Course?

More than one legislator has told us that the various iterations of New Jersey sports betting bills that had a grandfather clause intended it solely for the Cherry Hill site.

Or as bill sponsor Ray Lesniak, the former state senator, put it, “Sometimes bills or laws have unintended consequences.”

So for a while, the assumption was that this Hamilton Township spot 15 miles west of Atlantic City would not be in play. But the track, which had its race card dwindle down to fewer than a dozen days 20 years ago with a final race held in 2015, may not be out of the gambling business after all.

The property owner of the 250-acre site is — small world alert — Greenwood, which also has a hand in the Freehold and Cherry Hill sites. And in October, Greenwood reached a deal with the township to try to figure out a redevelopment plan for the site. A township official said then that there is a possibility of “having gaming at the site along with a hotel,” which would be the first in the Mays Landing section of Hamilton Township.

The best bet about the three sites in question is that we find out the long-term answers sometime in 2020.

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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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