Tom Jicha

Tom Jicha grew up in New York City and worked with John Pricci at the short-lived revival of the New York Daily Mirror. Tom moved to Miami in 1972 for a position in the sports department at the now defunct Miami News.

Tom became the TV critic in 1980 and moved to the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1988. All the while he has kept his hand in sports, including horse racing. He has covered two Super Bowls, a World Series and the Breeders’ Cup at Gulfstream Park.

He's been the Sun Sentinel’s horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

NJ hellbent on adding sports betting to tracks

New Jersey is not letting a rebuff from the courts derail its plan to add sports betting to the menu at race tracks and casinos. Marijuana is against federal law, too, but the government is looking the other way at that. The belief is the same thing will happen if and when New Jersey begins taking bets on games, possibly as soon as the first week of the NFL season.

MIAMI, July 21, 2014—NFL training camps open over the next few days. Ditto college football. By the 2014 kickoff, the upcoming season could become a landmark one.

In spite of a rebuff by the United States Supreme Court last month, New Jersey is moving full speed ahead to legalize sports betting at race tracks and casinos. The hope is bettors will be able to play on their favorite teams at Monmouth Park and other venues by the first week of the NFL season in September.

Sports betting in the Garden State appeared dead when the Supremes declined to hear an appeal against rulings by two lower courts that a 2011 referendum to permit sports betting, overwhelmingly approved by voters and supported by Gov. Chris Christie, was in violation of the 1992 Pro and Amateur Sports Protection Act.

The flies in the ointment were the usual suspects: the NCAA, NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. In their characteristically disingenuous court briefs, they contended that gambling on their games in New Jersey would tarnish the integrity of their sports.

We all know there is no one betting on these games now.

It’s easier than ever thanks to the internet. You no longer have to meet Vito in a smoky bar to make a bet. You can do it from your living room with a click of a mouse.

When the NFL allows the networks to promote the hell out of fantasy football, are they seriously suggesting that the stakes are marbles or match sticks?

Do you think the NCAA is unaware that the reason it gets billions for TV rights to March Madness is that almost everyone in America is following the fate of their brackets?

Whether intentionally or not, the courts left open a loophole. The state of New Jersey could not license sports gambling but it didn’t have to enforce state laws against it. In other words, New Jersey could do what several states have done with marijuana; look the other way.

Indeed, the way the federal government has handled medical marijuana and now recreational pot in Oregon and the state of Washington is being counted upon by New Jersey to clear the way for sports gambling. Federal laws with severe penalties against wacky weed are still on the books but the feds have done nothing to enforce them. President Obama laughed recently while on a fund-raising swing in Colorado when a young pot smoker offered him a toke.

NJ State Sen. Raymond Lesnick charged right through the opening left by the courts. He introduced a bill a few weeks ago to allow private citizens—i.e., the people who own race tracks and casinos--to operate sports betting operations.

Lesnick’s fellow lawman Al Caputo spoke in support. “We are in deep need of innovative ideas to combat the continuous downturn in New Jersey’s gaming industry in both Atlantic City and at our racetracks.” A couple of Atlantic City casinos have gone bankrupt in the past few weeks. Sports betting might bring some folks back to the shore, which now has nothing to offer that isn’t available closer to home in the heavily populated neighboring states of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.

Lesnick’s bill squeaked through the New Jersey State Senate 35-1. The Assembly concurred 63-6-2. New Jersey clearly wants to bet (or bet against) their Giants and Jets.

It is not irrelevant that Lesnick and Caputo are both Democrats, as are the majority of their colleagues in the New Jersey legislature. In what figures to be a tough election year for Democrats, with former Newark mayor Cory Booker up for re-election to the U.S. Senate, it’s doubtful President Obama and his Justice Department would want to do anything to make it more challenging by angering New Jersey voters by picking on their state while letting the pot states slide.

The timing of the latest push is not coincidental. Even though voters approved sports betting more than two years ago, lawmakers and Gov. Christie did not want to ruffle NFL feathers until the Super Bowl was held in the Meadowlands.

Those who suggest that the NFL might move to take the Giants and Jets out of the state in retaliation are higher than the folks in Oregon and Washington. That little playpen in Secaucus the two teams built cost more than a billion dollars.

Where would the Jets and Giants go? The Bronx and Queens, where baseball stadiums hold only half as many fans? That’s assuming they would be welcomed. Maybe the Giants could go back to the Yale Bowl?

Dennis Drazen, consultant to the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, is all for sports betting at the tracks. “This is a $500 billion industry and most of it is illegal,” Drazin was quoted as saying. “It would literally save Monmouth Park and save thousands of jobs.”

A significant difference between sports betting and slots, the most recent savior of racing, is that slots players rarely cross over. Horse players bet sports, and vice versa.

The Meadowlands, with its proximity to New York City, could benefit even more although there would probably be incredible pressure brought to bear not to have betting on the NFL closer than a long Eli Manning-to-Victor Cruz pass.

Tailgaters could have a beer, a brat and a bet before entering the stadium. It’s a delicious and intoxicating thought.

Written by Tom Jicha

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