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New Jersey has it right … and wrong

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

2018_06_12_MTH_Equi_Photo_Bill_Denver
New Jersey sportsbooks like the William Hill operation shown before its 2018 opening at Monmouth Park will soon be in a marketplace that includes fixed odds on horse races. That is after legislation that was passed this week. (Equi-Photo / Bill Denver)

Louisville, Ky.

Go figure New Jersey.

The state that has been the punchline to so many jokes and the home to political scandals from ABSCAM to Bridgegate may blaze a bold, new trail to the future of gambling on American horse races. At the same time it has turned the clock on horsemanship back nearly 2,000 years by handcuffing jockeys when it comes to using their crops.

Yep. Go figure New Jersey.

In what has to be considered progress, the state Senate and General Assembly voted unanimously to approve fixed-odds wagering for horse races. Authored by Democrat Ralph Caputo and Republican Ronald Dancer, the bill will give Monmouth Park’s partner BetMakers the green light to deploy what it has been preparing to do for years. That is to offer this separate betting market alongside existing mutuel pools.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s inevitable signature means that as soon as next month’s Haskell Stakes, New Jersey bettors should finally be able to enjoy what players in England and Australia have had for generations.

In other words, if a horseplayer looks at the board five minutes before a race and is afraid those 10-1 odds will shorten considerably, he or she can get a bet down with a bookmaker who will lock in that price, right then and there. Likewise, if that same player does not want to deal with bookies’ limits on multi-race or exotic bets, the pari-mutuels are still there. No private bookmaker will assume the Pick 6 risk that mutuel pools can handle.

While he or she still needs to be a good or lucky handicapper to come out ahead, the bettor is already a winner because of the expansion of options. For horseplayers pummeled by soaring takeout percentages and last-second batch betting by computer players, this is a reason to celebrate.

Headquartered in Australia, BetMakers cut a 10-year deal with Monmouth Park in early 2020 to provide the infrastructure that deploys fixed-odds wagering, just as soon as it is made legal. It also has agreements with Colonial Downs, Emerald Downs, Grants Pass Downs, Lone Star Park and the FanDuel site at Fairmount Park plus three tracks in Canada.

“We feel the support for fixed odds as a solution to facilitate growth in the horse-racing industry in the U.S. gaining momentum throughout the industry,” BetMakers CEO Todd Buckingham said in a company news release this week. “We are excited about what this opportunity means for the racing industry in New Jersey and more broadly in the U.S.”

Conspicuous by their absence, though, are the big boys and girls. The Stronach Group (its 1/ST Bet is a VSiN sponsor), the New York Racing Association and Churchill Downs Inc. are not on board yet. Their economic models are based on pari-mutuel wagering, and they no doubt would want a big piece of the action from the likes of BetMakers before its races are part of the fixed-odds menu.

But they will eventually fall in line. The public will demand it. This is not like the simulcast nickels and dimes that CDI and Nevada have been fighting over for close to two years. These are big bucks at a time when per-race betting has actually grown in part because the sport never stopped during the pandemic. Anyone invested in the business of Thoroughbred wagering will not want to lose out.

It may not have the giant footprint that the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling left when it opened the floodgates for tens of billions of annual dollars in legalized sports gambling across the country. But there will be a nationwide push to have the fixed-odds model brought to a racing app near you, especially once horseplayers get a whiff of New Jersey.

Which reminds me, did you hear the one about …

Racing notes and opinions

Oh, speaking of ye olde Garden State, the Jockeys’ Guild said it will cut off insurance coverage for riders at Monmouth Park as of next Thursday. This is because of the new state regulation that forbids jockeys from using their crops on horses except when safety demands it. The Guild said “this regulation is extremely dangerous.” Translation: The insurance provider is at greater risk to be paying claims. Monmouth Park bosses say the Guild is punishing its jockeys and, by extension, the racetrack. They point out they had nothing to do with the new rule that was foisted on the sport by a racing commission more plugged in to animal-rights extremists than its constituents. Of course, the same Monmouth bosses told jockeys who did not show up for opening weekend that they were not welcome to drop in later in the meet – as in next month’s $1 million Haskell. Caught in the middle, the jockeys who continue to ride in New Jersey are still eligible for government workman’s comp. Here’s hoping no one has to find out if that coverage measures up.

New Jersey (and other racing states) would do well to look at what happened Tuesday here in Kentucky. The state Racing Commission unanimously approved new rules that limit riders to six overhand uses of the crop during a race, no more than two in a row if the horse refuses to respond, and no high-sticking whatsoever. One thing that made Kentucky different is that it actually listened to riders. “We feel this rule is a fair compromise and is in the best interest of our industry,” Jockeys’ Guild CEO Terry Meyocks said – as an invited participant at the commission meeting. “Hopefully (it) would be the uniform rule for the riding crop in North America.” Procedural sign-offs are still needed, but the rule should take effect before the end of the year.

While the Stephen Foster card at Churchill Downs gets the most attention (see my story from Point Spread Weekly), Saturday’s 4:20 p.m. EDT running of the 1⅛-mile Grade 3 Ohio Derby at Thistledown is worthy of some attention, too. With rain in the forecast around Cleveland, Promise Keeper (7-2) is a lukewarm, morning-line favorite in the field of 11. Rain might not hurt him, since he won an April allowance race at Keeneland for trainer Todd Pletcher by five lengths in his only start on a sloppy track. King Fury (9-2) also prevailed in the Keeneland slop when he scored last time out in the Lexington Stakes. Channel Fury (20-1) got local experience with a second-place finish in the Thistledown slop last month, but that was in a $25,500 race for non-threes. This is not that. If the track is a bog, then frontrunning Masqueparade (8-1) seems a logical choice. This is not just about his 11-length win that lit up numbers players last time out. That field was weak. This is more about having a familiar rider in Miguel Mena, the potential to get in front of the pack, and the fact he is one of only two horses in the race that has never been off Lasix for any of his starts. I will key him with Hozier (12-1), a refugee of the Bob Baffert barn who races now for Rodolphe Brisset. Because he narrowly lost the Sir Barton Stakes to The King Cheek on the Preakness undercard, and because of the Baffert influence, I would be surprised if he actually went off at double-digit odds.

Add Ohio Derby: Keepmeinmind (4-1) is a curiosity getting Lasix for the first time and blinkers again after his up-the-track finishes without both in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. But this does not look like a closer’s race, so I will not be looking at him. I usually like the blinkers-off angle, but I do not see that helping Proxy (5-1) if he winds up getting a face full of slop all the way round the track.

As a new resident of Louisville, I found myself wondering about a possible weather shelter someday. That is because Tuesday was the 10th anniversary of the tornado that hit the back side at Churchill Downs, damaging nine barns and forcing close to 100 horses to be relocated. Somehow, no human or equine life was lost. Through it all, Churchill did not miss a day of racing. My memory of that evening came from my being at home in New York and watching it all unfold on a computer screen. I also have a vivid recollection of the late John Asher, the longtime spokesman for the Downs, being so calm when he met the media. I hope I never see a tornado first hand, but I do wish we could bring back John Asher. May he continue to rest in peace.

In addition to this weekly article, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com with more frequent postings during big events. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. With the current meet ending Saturday at Churchill Downs, Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen discusses his plans for the summer as well as his horses racing on closing day. Churchill Downs TV analyst Scott Shapiro looks at the Stephen Foster Stakes card. DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST Bet.

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