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States should embrace legal sports betting

It’s been nearly 20 years since slot machines first were introduced to many American racetracks. At the time, it seemed like a good way to stem the tide of rising competition that was eating away at pari-mutuel handles. Slot machine profits would help subsidize the horse racing industry.

Not every state got on board the slot machine train as it left the station. Iowa and West Virginia had to or else its racetracks would have closed. States such as California and New York passed on the option because casinos and slot machines were viewed as the enemy, and their racetrack businesses were still strong.

In hindsight, many states would have been better served following the advice of Chinese general Sun Tzu from “The Art of War”: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” It would have been wiser to share in the slot machine revenues than to fight the inevitable.

Now, second chances don’t come around often. But movement is afoot to legalize sports betting, with California and New Jersey taking the lead. The racing industries in those states are involved from the get-go, not wanting to miss the boat on this one.

Currently, the federal government allows legal sports gambling in four states, but realistically it’s just one: Nevada. Nevada has a well-run, tightly regulated and highly profitable industry. In fact, various experts suggest that the Nevada model serves as a viable watchdog for potential game-fixing and point-shaving.

The road to further legalizing sports betting will be bumpy, at best. In New Jersey, the four major sports leagues and the NCAA have filed suit against the state’s pending sports betting bill.

However, many legal experts contend the biggest obstacle will be overcoming the federal government and the law it passed in 1992 – the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act.

I disagree.

Our government would be blind to ignore the fact that in England, right now, you can bet on the Olympics. That when the NFL plays a game in England or Mexico, you can bet on it – literally and legally – across the street. When Navy and Notre Dame play football in Dublin next month, you can bet on it there, too.

Thus, there is an international precedent of gambling and sports co-existing.

As for the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, NHL and NCAA, one way to make their opposition go away is by sharing revenues with them. In becoming financial partners, they too would keep their friends close and their enemies closer.

Sports betting is a big enough money pie so that everyone can get theirs, including the racing industry. And there is one more potential advantage for the racetracks.

Nevada casinos build sports and race books side by side for good reasons. Horseplayers and sports gamblers are crossover bettors because similar handicapping and mental skills are necessary to consistently win.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.

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