02/18/2004 1:00AM

New Jersey moves closer to creating 15 OTB's

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The New Jersey Racing Commission unanimously approved an agreement Wednesday that is designed to bring 15 offtrack betting locations to the state in the next several years.

The agreement, reached among the state's racetrack operators, would allow the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which owns and operates Monmouth Park and The Meadowlands, to open nine OTB's in northern New Jersey. Pennwood Racing, a partnership that owns Freehold Raceway, would be able to open four OTB's, and Greenwood Racing - one of the partners in Pennwood and the owner of Atlantic City Race Course - would be able to open the remaining two OTB's.

Four years ago, New Jersey voters authorized offtrack betting in a referendum. But no OTB's have been built yet because of disagreements between tracks and horsemen over the number of live racing days and how the OTB agreement would be structured.

A number of other steps would have to be completed before any OTB's could open. The agreement approved on Wednesday would have to be approved by the state's attorney general; the NJSEA would have to be licensed by the state as an offtrack betting operator; and each location for an OTB would have to be subjected to local hearings and approvals.

"The approval [today] is going to trigger all those things," said Frank Zanzuccki, the executive director of the racing commission.

Under New Jersey law, racetracks are required to run 141 live Thoroughbred racing days to open OTB's. Although horsemen and the tracks have feuded over the racing schedule for the past four years, Monmouth and The Meadowlands are scheduled to run that exact amount of dates in 2004. Dates for 2005 are still up in the air.

The law stipulates that a maximum of eight OTB's can be opened in the first two years.

Hal Handel, an official for Greenwood Racing, said he is hopeful that four of his company's six allotted OTB's could be operating in a year. The Greenwood and Pennwood OTB's would all be in the southern half of the state.

"I think if everything breaks well, we could be up and running with some sites in nine, 10 months," Handel said. "But it's a pretty complicated process."

Bettors in New Jersey have long complained that the state has done little to make betting convenient. As it stands now, bettors have to go to a racetrack facility to make a legal wager on horse racing.

The 2000 referendum also legalized account wagering, but, like the OTB deal, telephone and Internet betting can't go forward without an agreement among all the tracks. Art Winkler, an official with the NJSEA who is overseeing the negotiations, said an agreement on account wagering would likely be ready to be submitted to the racing board for approval in March.

* George Zoffinger, the president of the NJSEA, said Wednesday that the authority is in discussions with Atlantic City casinos for a subsidy provided the authority does not support slot machine legislation over the next three or four years. The subsidy would likely be in the range of $20 million to $25 million, Zoffinger said.

The Atlantic City casinos "don't want to see another slot machine location in northern New Jersey, but they realize that something has to be done to help the industry," Zoffinger said.