OCEANPORT, N.J. — In its 139 years, Monmouth Park has seen its fair share of American history.
A pair of World Wars, a slew of Presidents, culture, music, style and most importantly, for this article's sake, monumental decisions at the hands of the Supreme Court.
In 2018, at long last, you can add sports gambling to the famous Jersey Shore track's chronicle.
On May 14, the Supreme Court, with a 6-3 outcome, ruled in favor to finally allow New Jersey — and any other state — to legalize sports gambling.
“It was a long fight, but to see the PASPA overturned was such a monumental and emotional day for us and many others who put in the effort to see sports gambling legalized,” said Michael Grodsky, Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations for William Hill.
The PASPA (Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act) was a law that cleared the senate and was signed in by George H. W. Bush in 1992 to federally prohibit sports gambling nationwide, for the exception of Nevada, and with sports lotteries still permitted in Oregon, Delaware and Montana.
“[May 14] was a really big day for us,” said Bill Knauf, Vice President of Business Operations at Monmouth Park, who watched with the rest of the nation as New Jersey officially become the second state — behind Delaware — to open the doors for sports gambling last month.
Prepared months in advance for the mid-May decision, Las Vegas-based William Hill, who now operates 107 locations in Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware, had set up what is now its sportsbook at Monmouth Park, which is housed in the west end of the racetrack facility, boasting over 50 televisions, hundreds of seats, a slew of ticket windows with a sports bar that with its own arrangement of televisions and seating.
And the place is only going to get bigger.
“We're actually planning a 75-foot wide, eight foot-high video board that we will carve up into a lot of different squares for all of the football and basketball signals,” said Knauf of the renovations in progress for the sportsbook. “We're going to order a lot of seating in the grandstand area. We will have much more to add on here. We're going to make it inviting for the patron to come here and bet games.”
The almost surreal feeling of placing a legal wager in a state outside of Nevada could not have been possible if not for the arduous tug of war battle between New Jersey and the professional sports leagues/NCAA. That started in 2011, when the leagues prevailed over the state attempting to approve legalized sports gambling for the first time under the PASPA to help with New Jersey's faltering casino industry. Specifically in Atlantic City, five casinos closed since 2014, taking with them over 11,000 jobs and leading to a state-high unemployment rate of 7.1%.
Spearheaded by former Gov. Chris Christie and Monmouth Park's chief executive Dennis Drazin, to name a few, June 14 of this year became the official declaration of victory for the state, when sitting Gov. Phil Murphy placed the first legal wager in the state's history at the William Hill sportsbook.
“We have Dennis Drazin to thank for everything,” explained Grodsky. “He beat the drum and led the charge for years on the PASPA overturning.”
Just after describing the “incredible working relationship” William Hill has with Monmouth Park, a curious bettor interrupted asking how he could make a bet on the Phillies.
“I mean that's just it, right there,” said a smiling Grodsky. “These fans are just so passionate about their teams. They come in here for the social experience, to bet on horses and then their favorite team. That's how a lot of it has been, and we think it's great.”
Great is certainly a word that could most accurately describe the revenue that William Hill has generated since opening shop.
In just 17 days of operations in June at Monmouth Park, William Hill cleared all current sports betting operating facilities in the state, raking in a gross revenue of $2,279,166, compared to Borgata, which pulled in $986,831. Those numbers came during one of the more lighter sports betting schedules of the year, with MLB and World Cup soccer providing the majority of wagering options.
“It was pretty encouraging,” said Grodsky of the betting turnout in June. “The experience of Russia vs.Saudi Arabia (the first World Cup match) was something else. As soon as Russia scored the opening goal of the tournament, the place went wild. You would have thought it was an NFL playoff game.”
The environment has become something rarely seen at the vintage but not antiquated race track, with sports bettors and horse players coming together.
“We've seen a huge uptick in the machines [at the sportsbook,] where players are not only betting on sports, but wagering on the races as well,” said Knauf of the flow of both sports bettors and horse players at the track. You can see the difference here, obviously.”
“You have a lot of sports bettors who are coming in and being exposed to the racetrack for the first time,” Knauf continued. “It's a lot of sports fans and some younger new fans, who may have never seen horse racing before. We're finding that it is a really good crossover right now between those fans coming in and betting those horse races and, of course our existing fans who also like to bet sports, who are now visiting the sportsbook. It's a nice mix.”
A total of 37,186 (which is above Knauf's quoted norm between “30 to 35,000”) made their way to the Jersey Shore track for Haskell Invitational Sunday. It was a far cry from the 60,000 that arrived for American Pharoah's romp in 2015, but it was an encouraging site for both Knauf and Grodsky nonetheless.
“It's all about horse racing on Haskell day, but we certainly are seeing a good amount of traffic at the sportsbook,” Grodsky said. “It's very encouraging to see all of these people at Monmouth.”
“It would have been nice to see (Triple Crown winner) Justify here, but those cards fall how they will,” Knauff said.
Monmouth Park has now become the epicenter of sports gambling meshing with horse racing, a combination previously exclusive to Nevada. Sportsbooks such as FanDuel at Meadowlands have since followed suit.
“I think so,” Knauff said. “Obviously, we've been in the court battle for five years and so, I think most people associate sports betting — outside of Las Vegas — with Monmouth Park, just because of the work Drazin has put in and how long the battle was. We've worked really hard and prepared a long time for this, so it's exciting to have this now.”
With neighboring states like New York and Pennsylvania still tied up in legislative red tape, which will more than likely not yield to sports gambling in either area of the country for this year's football season, William Hill and Monmouth Park will only reap the benefits of those residents wishing to cross state lines to place a wager.
“We're certainly seeing some of the New Yorkers that travel down this way, especially from Staten Island,” Knauff said. “I think people recognize Monmouth as the hub right now. If those other states don't want to enact any laws to permit their patrons to bet, then they are more than welcome to come here.”