08/21/2003 12:00AM

New Jersey OTB closer to reality


The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority approved an agreement on Thursday that could open up the state to offtrack betting by the end of the year.

The agreement, which must be approved by the state racing commission before taking effect, divides areas in the state among three companies for as many as 15 OTB parlors. The parlors themselves would have to be approved by the commission and local governments before they could begin taking wagers.

Additionally, state law requires that New Jersey racetracks run at least 141 live Thoroughbred dates before OTB parlors can take bets. This year, state racetracks are only scheduled to run 124 live racing days, meaning no OTBs could open in 2003 unless the legislation is changed.

Under the agreement, the NJSEA will be able to operate nine OTB parlors in counties in northern New Jersey. Greenwood Racing, the owner of Philadelphia Park in Pennsylvania, would be able to operate four OTBs in counties bordering the Philadelphia metropolitan area, while Pennwood, the owner of Freehold Raceway, would be able to operate two OTBs in counties in southern New Jersey.

New Jersey voters approved offtrack betting and account wagering in a 2000 referendum. Progress has been slow on establishing the networks, however, because of the statutory requirements on live racing days in the state and disagreements between horsemen and the tracks.

Art Winkler, an official with the sports and exposition authority who led the effort to reach the agreement, said that the authority continues to negotiate with Pennwood and Greenwood over an account-wagering pact. The agreements are required under state law, even though the law designates the authority as the sole licensee for offtrack betting and account wagering.

Winkler declined to speculate on when the authority might be able to open its first OTBs because of the uncertainty surrounding local approvals. But he said that he believed some OTBs could be operable in the state by the end of the year if the legislation is changed.

The Legislature is not scheduled to meet again until November. Dennis Drazin, the spokesman for the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said on Thursday that horsemen and the racetracks have already discussed going to the Legislature to request that the law be changed so that the minimum is lowered to 120 days for 2003 and 2004. The minimum would be raised to 141 days for the years 2005 to 2008, Drazin said.