Legal sports betting got a rousing New Jersey welcome Thursday morning at Monmouth Park. Beyond the pomp and circumstance of politicians and other dignitaries, there was a throng of several hundred eager bettors ready to get their wagers down at the William Hill US sportsbook.
“I’m hoping for thousands today,” said Dennis Drazin, CEO of Darby Development, which operates Monmouth Park.
By day’s end, he surely hit that number, as sports bettors flocked to the book and the adjacent race and sports bar at the renowned horse racing venue.
Drazin and William Hill US CEO Joe Asher were key players in bringing Thursday’s festivities to fruition. Drazin’s property devoted a hefty footprint and $3 million in upgrades over the past few years, on the hopes that ultimately sports betting would be legalized in New Jersey.
And William Hill joined in on the investment, long before last month’s Supreme Court decision that declared the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 unconstitutional, thereby opening the door to expanded legal sports betting.
“I read some comments back in 2012 from a guy named Dennis Drazin,” Asher recalled of when he first became aware of Drazin and his quest to host sports betting at Monmouth. “So I cold-called him and introduced myself, then went out to meet him and sat with him in his box at Monmouth to watch the races. We started talking about the idea, and we signed a contract in 2013.
“In the press release that day, I said, ‘One day, sports betting will be legal at Monmouth Park, and when it is, William Hill will be here.’”
He was right, obviously. However, much as Drazin and Asher were instrumental in the end result, former New Jersey state Sen. Ray Lesniak drew many of the kudos tossed around
Thursday morning. Lesniak, who spent 40 years in the state Legislature, did much of the heavy legal lifting to get sports betting in his home state.
“It’s been a more than eight-year fight. I got knocked down eight times in court,” Lesniak said. “I put a referendum on the ballot, won that, then kept going back to court, back to court. It finally got to the Supreme Court.”
On May 14, that judicial body found in New Jersey’s favor. The Legislature then guided through a bill that arrived on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk on Friday, and he signed it into law on Monday. Then the governor threw down the ceremonial first wager – actually, two wagers.
“I’m making two $20 bets, the first two legal bets in the history of this state,” Gov. Murphy exclaimed before an assembled throng of cameras and a roaring crowd. “I’m betting $20 on Germany to win the World Cup, and $20 on the New Jersey Devils to win Lord Stanley’s Cup.”
Germany is a good investment, at 7/2 one of the favorites in the tournament that started shortly after Murphy’s wagers. The Devils, meanwhile, are a 40/1 long shot to hoist the Cup next year – a nice homer bet for the savvy politician, and if it somehow hits, he’ll cash out for $800.
Shortly after the governor got down, it was time for public bettors to take over the joint. They were extremely eager to do so, and grateful for the new opportunity.
“I had to be here for the first day. This has been a long time coming,” Alex Pniewski said after making the drive from nearby Hazlet, N.J. “I’ve been out to Vegas several times. Now, we can come here. I just love betting on sports. I can come over here on Saturday afternoon and bet college football, and on Sunday bet the NFL.”
So what was he on for this historic occasion? His Ben Roethlisberger jersey gave away at least part of his intentions.
“I’m betting a bunch, but my main bet is gonna be $100 on the Steelers to win the Super Bowl,” Pniewski said. He also dropped 20 bucks on Russia -1 goal against Saudi Arabia in the World Cup opener, easily cashing in a 5-0 victory.
Greg Visone of Millburn N.J., about 30 minutes from Monmouth, was also happy about a much shorter trip to the betting window.
“I’ve waited a long time for this,” Visone said. “I started betting sports with a bookie years ago, when I was in college. I went over to the UK a lot, and I bet there. The fact that we can finally do it legally here, after having to go to the UK or Vegas, it’s special. So I just wanted to be here for the first day.”
Visone, who also jumped on Russia minus a goal and collected on that wager, tipped his cap to the legislator who made this all possible.
“Ray Lesniak deserves most of the credit for this. This was his baby.”
And although the labor was closer to nine years than nine months, Lesniak was a proud papa on Thursday.
“Today is the ultimate victory,” Lesniak said. “And the next victory will be on the Giants to win the Super Bowl and France to win the World Cup!”
For those watching those newly minted betting boards in New Jersey, the Giants are 35/1, and France is 11/2.
Patrick Everson is a Las Vegas-based senior writer for Covers. Follow him on Twitter: @Covers_Vegas.