In Maryland, there is a stalemate among legislators largely due to disagreements about who should be allowed to have sports betting — casinos and/or horse racing tracks. There is a chance legalized sports betting won’t happen in Maryland until at least 2020.
Horse racing needs more immediate help.
Churchill Downs Inc. wasted little time taking a step on this new frontier. The company announced an agreement Wednesday with Golden Nugget Atlantic City to enter online gambling and sports betting in New Jersey.
The handle, the total of money wagered at tracks nationwide, has fallen from $15.18 billion in 2003 to just under $11 billion the past seven years. Industry website Equibase hasn’t tracked attendance since the mid-1990s, but it has been dropping. Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said the sport is "holding its own" financially through all of the betting platforms.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s previous Derby winner, American Pharoah, created a buzz three years ago in becoming the sport’s first Triple Crown champion since 1978. It remains to be seen if Baffert’s colt Justify — the Kentucky Derby winner and favorite in Saturday’s Preakness — can generate similar interest, but that still won’t be enough for Baffert.
He believes casino gambling could be the way to bring some new fans to the rail. And as casinos now look to expand with professional sports books, there’s also a chance to add live race simulcasts.
"You’re now going to see casinos, if they don’t already have race and sports books, interested in putting those in," Waldrop said. "The two are perfect compliments and we see them all over Las Vegas. Perhaps we’ll see them in commercial casinos, and that would be a boon for horse racing. Anytime we can expand our distribution platform is a good thing."
Casino gambling is available in 40 states, with horse racing in 32 and 14 with racinos.
Many tracks have reduced races but have remained financially solid because slot machines and table games are more profitable.
Bettors interested in Justify or his challengers in the Preakness can bet at racinos or tracks with simulcast wagering, online in states that allow it, at sports books in Nevada or in states with off-track betting options.
But with New Jersey poised to begin sports betting within weeks at Monmouth Park and other states soon to follow, many more options could be available by this fall’s Breeders’ Cup championships at Churchill Downs.
Baffert just wants to see the sport do well, and he believes the Supreme Court ruling could be a jumping off point.
"I love when they say record-breaking handles, which means people are involved and still into it," Baffert said. "Everybody’s betting on their phones now, less people are coming to the races because they’ve made it so convenient.
"You like to win when there’s a crowd. That’s why Breeders’ Cup, Derby, anybody that wins a race even on the undercard, it means a lot because there’s 100,000 people here watching you win a race," he said. "Everyone wants to win when the whole world is watching."
And Baffert believes more people will watch if more could bet.
AP Sports Writers Ben Nuckols and Stephen Whyno in Washington, and David Ginsburg in Baltimore contributed to this report.