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Fixed odds come to N.J., but now what?

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Phil_Murphy_1
Gov. Phil Murphy signed the fixed-odds, horse-race wagering act into law Thursday, giving New Jersey horseplayers more options for wagering. (State of New Jersey photo)

Louisville, Ky.

The bill sat on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk for 45 days. The $1 million Haskell Stakes came and went, leaving untold new betting dollars to crumple in the pockets of horseplayers who have heard more times than they can count that fixed-odds wagering would land in New Jersey any day now.

That day is still in the future. But the go-ahead finally came Thursday, 6½ weeks after the state’s General Assembly and Senate passed by a combined 111-0 a bill to authorize the most important alternative to pari-mutuel wagering in the past century.

Sadly, New Jersey blew a great opportunity to give racing the most effective pair of booster shots this side of Moderna and Pfizer. With all the sturm und drang about the state’s draconian ban on jockeys’ sensible use of their crops, the 14-race Haskell card on July 17 suffered a 20 percent drop in handle from the record set last year. Ill-advised rule notwithstanding, imagine how much more than this year’s $16,414,535 would have come in if there had been a fixed-odds alternative for bettors.

Saturday brings the $1 million Hambletonian, the biggest harness race in the country. But Murphy put pen to paper too late to allow the New Jersey Racing Commission and the Meadowlands and bookmakers and contracted go-betweens to put everything in place in time for this weekend. Again, fixed-odds bettors could have seen the $5,730,615 ante that came in last year on Hambo day and raised it with more than a few chips of their own.

For their part, Monmouth management said fixed odds would arrive on the Jersey Shore racetrack “in the coming weeks,” as soon as the New Jersey Racing Commission and the state’s Division of Gaming Enforcement finalize regulations and authorization.

Tick, tick, tick.

The foot dragging has been costly, and New Jersey has seen this before. Back when Murphy was the newly minted, Democratic successor to Republican Chris Christie, his biggest claim to fame was that he inherited the role of lead plaintiff on his state’s lawsuit that took a wrecking ball to the nationwide ban on sports gambling.

When the U.S. Supreme Court eradicated the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) and made May 14, 2018, a holiday for sports gamblers to celebrate, Murphy’s name was immortalized in legal history. The legislature in New Jersey observed the occasion by dawdling for 24 more days. By the time Trenton finally passed the bill for which the state had been waging its expensive, six-year legal fight, nearby Delaware was already taking bets on games. All those Philadelphians had another reason to take their money over the border to the south, not to the east.

Bureaucracy kept New Jersey from simply turning the key to activate sports-betting dollars. That same bureaucracy is preventing an instant start to fixed-odds wagering on horse racing, even though Murphy’s eventual signature was odds-on. That was because the legislature passed it 111-0. Again, that said 111-0. That sort of agreement does not happen in divisive, 21st century government – except when it means sending the NCAA to its room.

First impressions come only one at a time, and New Jersey keeps screwing them up. Yes, critics and realists are right to say that the gambling arena may be a zero-sum game. That someone making a $100 fixed-odds bet is simply taking it away from the $100 that would have been bet into the pari-mutuel pool. That this will eventually be a classic case of cannibalization. While proponents would beg to differ, that truth makes first impressions all the more important.

It is hard to argue that the early days of fixed odds will provide a short-term boon to the racing till. Someone who is used to betting that $100 on the races might make it $150 or $200 early on before settling into a budget that will be split between the old and new ways of betting.

So why couldn’t New Jersey have made that first impression when there were more someones ready to make their dollars available on the two biggest racing days it hosts every year? The Haskell and Hambletonian rake in more than $20 million in pari-mutuel handle. That is about four times what New Jersey attracts on an average day. The added money from those early fixed-odds wagers – that first impression – will not be as much when it is finally offered late this summer (hopefully) than it could have been.

But better late than never, right? As other states look in on the example that is about to be set in Oceanport and East Rutherford, here is hoping they go about copying New Jersey much more efficiently than the original.

Racing notes and opinions

David Aragona of TimeformUS is one of the most astute morning-line makers in the country, but there are more than a few wags like me who think he got the favorite wrong for Saturday’s $1 million Grade 1 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga. He put Knicks Go (6-5) ahead of Maxfield (8-5), Silver State (4-1), the filly Swiss Skydiver (6-1) and By My Standards (10-1). With his 7-for-8 record, I would have thought Maxfield would be shorter priced, and the public may yet agree. The pacesetting Knicks Go comes in off a lopsided win in the Grade 3 Cornhusker Handicap. Before that he was fourth in both the Saudi Cup and Met Mile. This 1⅛-mile race should be tougher than either horse has faced until now. Silver State has won six in a row, but he may not be fast enough here. Swiss Skydiver is no longer burdened by the hind-ankle infection she carried to a wilting, third-place finish 3½ months ago in the Apple Blossom. By My Standards looks outclassed. The play here is the deep closing Maxfield, who may cement his place as the top handicap horse in the country if he wins – not to mention an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. With dry weather forecast for Saratoga, the Whitney starts Saturday at 5:48 p.m. EDT.

Two horses trained by the titan turf trainer Chad Brown are shortest priced on the morning line for Saratoga’s $500,000 Grade 1 Test Stakes, a seven-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies. If not for a neck loss to Malathaat in the Kentucky Oaks, Search Results (5-2) would be 5-for-5. Always Carina (3-1) has started odds-on in all three of her races, coming up 1¼ lengths short June 26 in the Grade 2 Mother Goose at Belmont Park. Zaajel (8-1) was the 18-1 upset winner that day for trainer Todd Pletcher, who is being inducted into the Hall of Fame on Friday. She is 3-for-5 with good excuses for her two lopsided losses. She was rank and fought her rider in one, and she did not take to the turf in the other. Cutting back to a distance that may be more suited to her dam-side breeding, Zaajel looks like a strong value play in the Test, which is posted for Saturday at 4:34 p.m. EDT.

Off the bench after a Grade 1 win May 31, 5-year-old mare Maxim Rate (7-2) is a lukewarm, morning-line favorite for the $200,000 Grade 2 Yellow Ribbon Handicap, the 8½-furlong turf feature for fillies and mares Saturday at 9:36 p.m. EDT at Del Mar. Coming back from losses last out, Charmaine’s Mia (4-1) and Dogtag (4-1) are the co-second choices. Princess Grace (8-1) appears to be the easy value play – and by easy I mean whoa. Mike Stidham has trained this 4-year-old to four wins in five races, including an off-Lasix score last month at Parx. Why the long odds? Spell it P-a-r-x. I actually like Charmaine’s Mia more, especially if she can get on a loose lead. But if Princess Grace is 8-1, I may look out my rear window to catch a thief and catch some green fire after high noon. See what I did there?

Pappacap (8-5), a Gun Runner colt out of a Scat Daddy mare, is shortest on the morning line for the $200,000 Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes, a six-furlong race for 2-year-olds at Del Mar. Trained by Mark Casse, Pappacap broke his maiden by 2¾ lengths on debut May 14 at Gulfstream Park. Bet On Mookie (5-2) is an Uncaptured colt that broke his maiden with a 56.47-second dash around five furlongs on turf June 11 at Santa Anita. Peter Miller trains both him and Aquitania Arrival (4-1), a Carpe Diem colt that won on debut for his previous trainer William Morey. Miller is money when it comes to young sprinters. The bet here is that Miller money translates to a win for Bet On Mookie on Saturday at 9:06 p.m. EDT.

This column and the Ron Flatter Racing Pod will originate next Friday from Arlington Park near Chicago, where the Bears may be moving, racing is about to be leaving and Churchill Downs Inc. is selling. Next Saturday brings the last staging of Million Day, which is now a misnomer. The Arlington Million is no longer, downgraded to a $600,000 race named for the track’s 99-year-old patriarch Richard Duchossois. The Grade 1 Mister D. will come and go 54 days before the real Mr. D. turns 100. The most beautiful track in the country, the one that Duchossois built out of the ashes of a 1985 fire, should live so long. Sadly, it will not.

In addition to this weekly article, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode is focused on Saturday’s $1 million Whitney Stakes at Saratoga. Trainer Kenny McPeek talks about sending his champion filly Swiss Skydiver against the boys. Tim Wilkin of the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union previews the Saturday card. Rampart Casino sportsbook director Duane Colucci handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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