Almost every day, friends John Merendino, Bill Burkhardt and Harvey Bird play the horses at the simulcast parlor at Atlantic City Race Course in Mays Landing.
“We’re the coffee klatch,” joked Merendino, 73, of Absecon. “We’re not serious bettors, but we’re here all the time.”
Like other bettors, these three friends are constantly looking for good tips on horses. But there’s one tip they have no interest in: mobile gambling.
New Jersey lawmakers recently approved legislation allowing the state’s four horse-racing tracks — Atlantic City, Monmouth, Freehold and the Meadowlands — to offer mobile gambling on wireless hand-held devices, such as smartphones and iPads.
“It would be too confusing,” Burkhardt, 72, of Mays Landing, said while Bird, 70, of Galloway Township, nodded in agreement. “Suppose you punch in the wrong number at the wrong track?”
While old-timers such as Merendino, Burkhardt and Bird may be resistant, the fact is, mobile gambling is coming to New Jersey’s racetracks this year and is seen as the next technological innovation in horse racing’s pursuit of younger customers.
“Today’s technology just makes a lot of sense. With the younger demographic using more technology, it will be a convenience factor and should be a positive,” said Bob Kulina, president of Monmouth Park in Oceanport, Monmouth County.
Monmouth Park is converting its facilities to a Wi-Fi network and should be ready to introduce mobile gambling in time for the start of the track’s live racing season May 12, if not sooner, Kulina said.
“Our live racing tends to be a younger, technology-savvy group,” Kulina said. “As you move forward, everybody’s going to be more and more savvy to technology. It’s just the way technology is moving.”
Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, is one of the prime sponsors of the bill.
“If our horse-racing industry is going to remain attractive to visitors and competitive with neighboring states, it’s important that it keep up with the latest innovations and trends,” he said. “It moves our horse-racing industry into the 21st century.”
Maureen Bugdon, president of Atlantic City Race Course, said the track supports the idea of mobile gambling but may wait a while before deciding whether to offer it.
“We’re interested in anything that makes our industry more competitive and modern,” she said. “We’re following this with great interest, just like the rest of the gambling industry.”
The track legislation follows New Jersey’s approval of mobile gambling at the Atlantic City casinos. Although mobile gambling regulations are in place, the casinos have not yet set up the systems to let their customers begin using hand-held devices to bet on the slot machines and table games.
Mobile gambling will allow casino customers to place bets while lounging at the pool, eating dinner at a restaurant or relaxing in their hotel rooms. At the tracks, customers will be able to bet on live and simulcast racing while they are on track property, including the restaurants and outdoor areas such as the paddock.
The New Jersey Racing Commission will develop regulations to oversee mobile gambling, including safeguards to protect against underage gambling or cheating. Racing fans would set up accounts for mobile betting. Outside the tracks, the mobile gambling device would be inoperable.
In the casino industry, there are fears that mobile gambling may not be accepted by enough customers to make it worth the investment. The reluctance of Merendino, Burkhardt and Bird may be present at the racetracks, at least among older customers.
“If you’re using your phones instead, you could take a job away from a human teller,” Bird said of the track employees who accept bets. “Besides, you’ve got to be pretty lazy not to want to get up and place a bet in person.”
Atlantic City Race Course functions as a simulcast parlor year-round, except for six days of live racing in April and May. Simulcasting allows customers to bet on horse races broadcast from tracks across the country. At Atlantic City Race Course, the customers have to walk only a few steps to place bets with a teller or at the kiosks.
Kulina, however, noted that during live racing meets at Monmouth Park, track fans are spread out all over the property, so it could be more convenient to place wagers on a hand-held device rather than trudging back to a betting window, “especially since Monmouth is such a big facility.”
“On weekends, we get 10,000 to 15,000 people,” he said. “It will be easier to do it on your smart device than getting in line.”
Race fans often watch the horses warming up in the paddock before races, closely studying their behavior for signs that one may be a better choice than another. Kulina said he believes mobile gambling will allow fans to study the horses that much longer before placing their bets.
“I do think it gives some of the customers a little bit of an edge,” he said.
Archimedes Merriweather, a customer at Atlantic City Race Course, argued that new technology such as mobile gambling will create even more excitement and convenience for race fans.
“The benefit is, you have many more betting options,” Merriweather, 48, of Egg Harbor Township, said. “Anyone who wants to bet on racing across the country can take advantage of it. This would be a great idea.”
Merriweather urged Atlantic City Race Course to introduce mobile gambling. He said it would be key for revitalizing the track’s business by bringing in a younger generation of racing fans.
“They need to modernize things from a technology standpoint,” he said. “We’re sitting on a golden egg here, and people don’t realize it.”
Contact Donald Wittkowski: