Posted with permission from NJ.com
Paco Lopez, a three-time top jockey at Monmouth, is back to defend his riding championship this year. (Photo By Bill Denver | EQUI-PHOTO)


If all goes according to plan, on the first Sunday in October Monmouth Park Racetrack will start taking money from customers who will try to predict the outcome of sporting events.

"I'll be there to put down the first bet," said state Sen. Ray Lesniak.

"Great, but you can't call it a bet," I replied.

"You're right," said the Union County Democrat who has been a longtime champion of bringing sports betting to New Jersey's racetracks and casinos.

Technically the action being offered is not known as sports betting but rather as "fantasy sports."

The fantasy in question is that  winning and losing money based on the outcome of athletic performances isn't gambling.

That's nonsense, of course. But it's nonsense that could help revive the state's flagging racetracks and casinos.

Lesniak has led the campaign to bail out the tracks and casinos by legalizing sports betting. Last year he pushed through a bill doing just that.

But after the professional sports leagues sued, a federal court ruled the bill was in violation of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992.

PASPA, as it's known, banned sports betting in any state that didn't already have it by the effective date of the bill. New Jersey missed that deadline. That means you can't place sports bets at Monmouth Park next month.

But you can lay your dollars down on fantasy sports. That's because of a federal law enacted in 2006 that created a "carve-out" from PASPA that permits you to put your money behind your predictions for the performances of individual players on a make-believe team.

That's not betting, say the feds. The dictionary begs to differ. Webster says gambling is "the act of playing for stakes in the hope of winning." That's exactly what the people who put down money with the many internet sports-fantasy sites do.

So why can't the people at Monmouth Park do the same? Dennis Drazin says they can - even though no one else seems to have tried that trick yet.

Drazin, who is the attorney for the track, said the team owners should have just let the Jersey law take effect. Instead they are pretending to oppose sports betting while making millions off fantasy sports.

"The leagues are out there screaming they want to oppose this and now they're taking equity positions in the sports-fantasy operations," he said. ""Look at the hypocrisy of the leagues here."

More important, look at the facilities that have been set up at pro-football stadiums. The Dallas Cowboys and the Boston Patriots both have sections of their stadiums set aside for fantasy fans who want to watch TV to keep up with the progress of the players they pick.

Well, if you're going to sit around watch TV all day, why not do it at the racetrack? You'll save the cost of a stadium ticket and duck the outrageous amounts the pros charge for refreshments.

Lesniak predicts a lot of fans will see the logic in that.

"You put your bets down and on Sunday you go to watch the teams and collect," he said. "There's an attraction of having your friends there and buying a beer and a slice of pizza or whatever."

Sounds good to me. I had a look around the Monmouth Park facility last year and it seemed like an ideal spot to waste a Sunday afternoon watching football.

I suspect it will look that way to a lot of others as well. The room will be outfitted with not just TVs showing the games but also with displays tracking how the various players are doing.

Lesniak said that if the Monmouth operation is a success then the Atlantic City casinos will likely follow suit. In poker terms, what the racetrack is doing is calling the team owners' bluff.

That's because the profits from the park's fantasy leagues will stay with the park. But if sports betting were legalized, the teams could negotiate with tracks and casinos to get a cut of the take.

That's what Drazin and Lesniak hope will happen. And U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone is pushing the process along. In a letter he sent last week to the leaders of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the Monmouth County Democrat called for hearings on the thorny question of just what constitutes betting.

"Professional sports' deep involvement with daily fantasy sports leaves many questioning whether fantasy sports are distinguishable from sports betting and other forms of gambling," Pallone wrote.

Pallone made it clear that the answer to that question is the obvious: Playing fantasy sports for money is gambling. And it makes no sense to prohibit one form of gambling while allowing another.

He quoted NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to the effect that "sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated"

Or in other words, "We want our cut of the swag."

If I were a betting man, I'd bet that's how this turns out.