The New York horse racing industry is preparing for the possibility of legal sports betting.
This week, an executive from Western Regional Off-Track Betting expressed an immediate appetite for expanded wagering through its Batavia Downs headquarters. COO Mike Nolan told The Daily News that WROTB will move into NY sports betting without delay if legislation clears a path.
“If we can do it legally,” Nolan said, “we’ll do everything we can to be up and running as soon as possible.” The group also operates dozens of OTBs in the state, all west of I-81.
Nolan’s sentiments echo those of operators in neighboring New Jersey, where legalization is also pending. Monmouth Park, for example, hopes to be taking sports bets within weeks of a US Supreme Court ruling.
Batavia Downs bullish on sports betting
New York and New Jersey are both among a small group of states with new sports betting laws. Like everyone not named Nevada, though, they’re prohibited from activating that law under a superseding federal prohibition.
The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) blocks state-based regulation of sports betting unless it was already in place before 1992. Nevada was grandfathered in, but any laws passed thereafter are effectively void unless something changes at the federal level.
NJ is trying to do the changing. It took the matter all the way to the highest court in the nation, presenting oral arguments last December. Murphy vs. NCAA will be decided within a matter of weeks, and the gaming industry is giddy with anticipation.
Many expect to see PASPA repealed, including Nolan. Horsemen speak the language of handicapping, so he was ready with a number. “If you wanted me to give you some odds, I would say 60/40 that the Supreme Court will overturn it,” he said.
Batavia Downs already has an early game plan on the whiteboard.
“We have all kinds of areas that we could retrofit and get going quickly,” Nolan said. “We would be tied in with some really big sports outfit that had been doing sports betting for years. It’s our hope that if everything goes well and in our favor, we’re hoping to have sports betting by the NFL season.”
The goal, of course, would be to target the region’s existing sports fanbase. “Certainly, with two professional sports teams in western New York, the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres, it will be exciting.”
‘If we can do it legally…’
Herein lies the current issue for Batavia Downs.
Tracks and OTBs in neighboring states are eager for sports betting with good reason. They’ll be involved from the start. Laws in NJ and Pennsylvania allow those venues to seek licenses if the federal hurdles are removed.
Pari-mutuel facilities in the Empire State aren’t so fortunate at the moment though. As written, the state’s own sports betting law limits licensure to the four commercial NY casinos. Even if PASPA were repealed tomorrow, the racing industry would still need new legislation to offer sports betting.
Lawmakers are in the process of revisiting the issue. Several news bills have already appeared this session, each of them including tracks and OTBs in the industry.
Time is of the essence, though. Tracks in neighboring states have already positioned themselves for sports betting, and the Supreme Court’s hourglass is nearly empty.
Daily News also reports that WROTB has been working with lawmakers in Albany to get legislation moving. A recent proposal from Sen. John Bonacic (S 7900) evidently reflects compromises that arose from those discussions.
Creating a quality wagering product
Horse betting is old hat for Batavia Downs; it has hosted pari-mutuel racing since 1973. It also has its limit of 600 video lottery terminals, operating as a licensed racino since 2005. This new vertical, though, would require a bit of catching up.
Nolan said the WROTB is already getting familiar with the mechanics in a proactive way. “We’ve been educating ourselves on sportsbooks and sports betting so we can bring the best sports betting product to New York State,” he said.
It sounds like they’re past the preliminary stages. According to Nolan, the group is now seeking out an operating partnership. “This past Friday, we just had a video conference with a sportsbook company,” he said. “That was our second talk with them and we’ve had talks with others.”
Batavia Downs does seem to be a good candidate for sports betting. Customers already enjoy sports-centric promotions and seasonal events, and the property even embraces NY daily fantasy sports. Two years ago, it entered into a long-term agreement with FanDuel to offer DFS contests.
That’s so 2016 though. The mere prospect of widespread sports betting has begun to shift the current beneath the gaming industry this year. That includes some DFS operators, like DraftKings, along with casinos, tracks, OTBs, video poker parlors and lottery retailers in every relevant state.
Batavia Downs is trying to bring sports betting into western New York, too — and to do so quickly.