ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Gov. Chris Christie's administration issued a directive Monday allowing the state's casinos and racetracks to offer sports betting, a move likely to be challenged in court by sports leagues.
The governor said he took his cue from previous federal court rulings that found that nothing in New Jersey law prohibits the casinos and horse racing tracks from offering sports betting.
His action, through the state attorney general's office, is likely to be challenged by the professional and collegiate sports leagues that fought New Jersey's efforts to overturn a ban on sports betting in all but four states. That effort ended with the U.S. Supreme Court declining to hear the case.
Christie suggested casinos and tracks could start offering betting immediately, but it's not clear that will happen. Rachel Ryan, a spokeswoman for the Meadowlands Racetrack said Monday that the track has no plans to offer sports betting now.
"Based on the arguments of the sports leagues and the United States Department of Justice, the 3rd Circuit has already ruled that New Jersey can carry out sports wagering as described in today's statewide directive," the governor's office wrote in a statement. "The motion simply would clarify and formalize that authority and give clear guidance to casinos and racetracks waiting to open a sports pool in New Jersey."
The professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey leagues, as well as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, all opposed New Jersey's effort to legalize sports betting, saying it could give the appearance that the integrity of the games has been compromised.
The NFL had no comment when reached by ESPN.com. Other leagues and the NCAA did not immediately return messages Monday.
Monmouth Park, a thoroughbred track in Oceansport, New Jersey, has been outspoken that it will take the lead once sports betting became legal.
The park built a sports bar last year that was designed to be transformed into a sports book quickly if sports betting were legalized.
Dennis Drazin, an attorney and adviser to the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horseman and Monmouth Park, told ESPN in early September that he believes the track could have an operating sports book within three weeks after legalization.
N.J. State Sen. Jennifer Beck, a Republican who represents the area where Monmouth Park resides, said Monday that she would like to see the track begin taking bets as soon as this upcoming weekend, but wants to see the reaction from the sports leagues.
"That to some degree will dictate how the race tracks and casinos move forward," Beck told ESPN.
The U.S. branch of William Hill agreed to be the exclusive provider of sports betting at Monmouth Park, but is taking a wait-and-see approach.
"We are reviewing the Attorney General's directive and the motion filed in U.S. District Court," William Hill U.S. CEO Joe Asher said in a statement. "Obviously, this is a significant development. Like others, we recognize that legalized sports betting is inevitable, and will be a good outcome for customers, states and the sports leagues. In light of our significant investment at Monmouth Park, we are happy that it appears racetracks and casinos in New Jersey will be taking sports bets sooner rather than later."
In addition to the directive, Christie also had the state file a motion in federal court asking a judge to clarify or modify a February 2013 ruling that blocks a licensing program New Jersey had passed for sports betting in the state.The governor says sports betting is legal under previous federal rulings as long as wagers don't involve a collegiate game played in New Jersey or a New Jersey college team elsewhere in the country.
"Victory at last!" said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, one of the legislature's strongest supporters of sports betting. "People should book their hotel rooms in Atlantic City for the Super Bowl now because there won't be any available in February."
Lesniak said he expects the leagues to challenge the move, but predicted: "They don't have any arguments left to make. This is all over but the shouting."
He said he does not expect sports betting to begin until a court rules that it is legal.
The move is a turnaround for Christie, who initially seemed resigned to defeat once the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear New Jersey's appeal in June, saying, "You know, that's the way it goes."
A month ago, Christie vetoed a bill that would have pushed New Jersey to circumvent the federal ban on gambling on professional and college sports. Christie said at the time disagreed with the court decision but feels the law is "sacrosanct."
The move came hours before Christie was to convene a closed-door summit on the future of Atlantic City. The seaside resort has already lost three of the 12 casinos with which it began this year, and a fourth one is due to shut its doors next week; about 8,000 casino workers will have lost their jobs since January.
Casino executives did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Christie's action.
Voters in New Jersey overwhelmingly endorsed legal sports betting in a nonbinding referendum in 2011. State lawmakers soon enacted a law to allow for betting at tracks and in casinos. Bets wouldn't have been taken on games involving New Jersey colleges or college games played in the state.
But those actions ran up against the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, enacted by Congress to restrict betting on sports to a few states. Nevada has allowed betting on sports for more than 60 years, and Delaware, Montana and Oregon have at times permitted more limited betting. New Jersey missed a 1991 deadline in the law that would have allowed sports betting in Atlantic City.
Information from ESPN.com's David Purdum and The Associated Press is included in this report.
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