05/23/2001 11:00PM

Offtrack betting remains up in air


For the third year in a row, a bill legalizing off-track wagering and account betting has been introduced in the New Jersey legislature, and for the the third year in a row, horsemen and racing officials have their fingers crossed.

They should be hoping that they don't have their swords crossed.

Racing interests have been their own worst enemies over the past two years when trying to get legislation passed. As trainers and tracks argued over revenue splits and live racing days, legislators largely turned their backs on the effort or failed to pass a bill that the governor could support.

The result has been that New Jersey - one of the first states to legalize full-card simulcasting - is currently one of the few states not to legalize offtrack betting or account wagering, a disadvantage that neighboring states have exploited over the past decade to New Jersey's detriment.

In an effort to avoid the disappointments of the past two years, officials of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority and the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association have been discussing the current legislation in an attempt to iron out any differences before the bill comes to a vote in either house.

"We're optimistic something can be worked out soon," said Bruce Garland, the senior vice president of racing for the NJSEA, which owns Monmouth Park and The Meadowlands, on Thursday. "We have a number of concerns, and we expect that we will have to compromise on some of them."

Horsemen's representatives said Thursday that the version of the bill now being discussed in the legislature is satisfactory.

"Is it everything we want? No," said Barbara DeMarco Reiche, a lobbyist for the NJTHA. "But it's been two and a half years, and we feel we need to get this done for the good of racing."

The current legislation, which has passed out of the a committee in the Assembly and has been referred to the Economic and Agriculture Committee in the Senate, would authorize 15 offtrack betting locations in the state, all of them run by the NJSEA. It would also allow phone betting, and it would require Monmouth and The Meadowlands to run 141 days of live Thoroughbred racing through 2004 and a minimum of 120 live days in 2005 and beyond.

Last year, a bill required 170 live racing dates in the state. The legislation passed in both houses, but Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who is now the administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, exercised a conditional veto of the bill and changed the dates requirement to 120. Horsemen objected, and the amended bill failed to receive the support needed to override the veto.

Horsemen and track officials have until July 1 to get their act together, when the legislature is scheduled to adjourn. The bill is scheduled to be heard in the Senate committee on June 11.