Cherry Hill Sportsbook Effort Ends (?)

The Battle of Cherry Hill is over — for now, at least.

The years-old plan to allow a sportsbook in the Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill, N.J., seems to be doomed after a filing Tuesday by the owner of a shopping center at the site of the former Garden State Racetrack.

The operator filed a notice to the U.S. District Court of New Jersey saying that it “no longer wishes to pursue this action at this time.”

The current state of the world played into the decision, according to the operator.

Blame it on COVID-19

“Over the past several months, the parties had been negotiating a possible settlement of this action, without the assistance or participation of counsel,” attorneys for the shopping center wrote.

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“Up until recently, the settlement negotiations were continuing, and included numerous communications between the parties. The parties’ negotiations have since ceased.

“The ongoing global pandemic and the concomitant federal, State, and local restrictions have made it nearly impossible for Plaintiffs to open and operate a ‘bricks and mortar’ sports wagering facility for the foreseeable future.”

The claims were withdrawn, but “without prejudice and without costs,” leaving a small window open for  a later claim, however unlikely, to be revived.

Cherry Hill Towne Center sued the former owners of the land in 2018 after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened the door for sports betting in any state that legalized it.

In New Jersey, that meant it became possible at all Atlantic City casinos, at the state’s three existing racetracks, and conceivably at the former track sites of Garden State Park and Atlantic City Racecourse.

But a 1998 covenant related to the sale of the Garden State Park site prohibited subsequent owners from offering “horse racing, simulcasting, off-track betting, wagering activities, and gambling of any sort (collectively, “Gaming”) anywhere on the GSP property.”

Cherry Hill Towne Center called the clause “overly broad” and noted that sports betting was not expressly prohibited.

What ultimately seems to be the fatal blow was administered in September, when federal Judge Renee Bumb wrote in a 20-page opinion that “the covenant can only mean exactly what it says” and that “sports wagering is a ‘sort’ of wagering.”

Cherry Hill sportsbook anyway?

Bumb further concluded that a sportsbook could indeed be implemented at the Cherry Hill site — but only by former owners GS Park Racing and Greenwood Racing.

That opinion found that the defendants “will likely prevail,” so even though that opinion kept the case alive, it left the shopping center operator at a disadvantage well before COVID-19 took its toll.

Former state Sen. Ray Lesniak created the carve-out for the Cherry Hill site, with language in the subsequent law that unintentionally, and so far irrelevantly, also includes an Atlantic County former racetrack site.

Lesniak told that his idea was to “take advantage of the lucrative Cherry Hill market.”

But that was well before neighboring Pennsylvania swooped in to offer its own brick-and-mortar sportsbooks at nearby casinos. And with both states offering mobile sports wagering, the Cherry Hill concept became less of a prize.

Lesniak said he never had any contact with either party in the lawsuit, but he said the outcome “looks like a good result.”

“I suspect there was a settlement which I always believed would happen,” Lesniak said. “Too much money not to come to a settlement.”

Greenwood Racing is a 50% owner of Freehold Raceway in New Jersey as well as owner of the Parx Casino and Racing property near Philadelphia, and it appears it can now decide if opening a Cherry Hill sportsbook is worthwhile strategically.

Photo provided by Shutterstock

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