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States’ rush to sports betting might be quite a horse race

Ray Willis is a gambler – at least in the sense he has been an owner and breeder in New Mexico’s skittish horse racing business since 1981.

But he is not a bettor.

Ray Willis

“I’m not a tremendous proponent of gambling everywhere,” said the chairman of the New Mexico Racing Commission and a member of the New Mexico Gaming Control Board. “That’s just my personal feeling. I don’t do any sports betting myself.”

But sports betting – the legal kind that is largely found in Las Vegas, Nev. – may be on its way to Las Vegas, N.M., as well as many other parts of these United States.

That’s because the Honorable John G. Roberts and the Supremes are considering a case called Christie vs. the NCAA. The result could invalidate the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which bans states from authorizing or licensing sports betting. A decision on the case, which was heard in December, could come any day now.

New Jersey – which once had a Dallas Cowboys-loving, bridge lane-closing governor named Chris Christie – argues the 10th Amendment is being violated. That’s the portion of the Bill of Rights that states any power that is not given to the federal government is given to the states.

So if sports gambling is good enough for Nevada, why not New Mexico? After all, we have mountains, high desert and the ability to store nuclear waste, too.

A board displays odds for different bets on the NCAA basketball tournament at the Westgate Superbook sports book. Legalized gambling could be coming to the rest of the country, depending on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. (John Locher/Associated Press)

According to an economics study done for the American Gaming Association, sports betting, if legalized nationally, could erupt into a $41.2 billion industry. The AGA predicts we will wager more than $10 billion on the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, but only about $300 million of that will be bet legally at Nevada sports books.

New Jersey, of course, would like to cash in. Would New Mexico follow?

“It’s something we have to look at,” Willis said. “And the Legislature will have to look at it.”

Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado brought horses to this part of the world in the 16th century and there was probably wagering on who had the fastest animal back then.

Today, New Mexico has five licensed racetrack casinos and about 25 tribal casinos. The New Mexico Lottery lures its share of dreamers who plunk down dollars every week.

Our neighbors to the east are welcome contributors to our gambling institutions.

“A lot of gaming dollars spent in New Mexico are tourist dollars,” Willis said. “A tremendous amount of our out-of-state dollars are put in by Texans.”

Still, Willis, a former Texan who made some coin in the oil and gas field, has worries.

“How many gaming dollars are out there?” he said.

There will be opposition from organizations such as Stop Predatory Gambling New Mexico, which warns on its website of exploitation and fraud by commercialized gambling.

There are those who worry about the socioeconomic impact gambling has on the poor.

The NCAA, which likes to pretend it is the great protector of amateur athletics, has its reservations.

Nevertheless, illegal gambling is as sizable as the car theft rate in Albuquerque. There’s no sense pretending it doesn’t exist.

“If the public wants it, we have to listen to the public,” Willis said.

New Mexico ought to begin the discussion now.

Reports suggest states such as California, Kentucky, New York – each with a strong horse racing presence – and Mississippi are poised to pounce should the decision from on high favor New Jersey.

There is much to ponder and maybe little time to vacillate.

Will wagers be allowed on college games? On the Lobos and Aggies? On the Isotopes? How will the tribal casinos react?

Will lawmakers averse to raising taxes feel better feeding off gambling dollars? Will local bookies be permitted to offer odds to the rest of the world online? Can the horse racing industry get a cut large enough to offset what potential damage its business would suffer from sports gambling?

“If it would help the industry, help the state, we would have to look at it,” the commissioner said.

Meanwhile, Willis has a young colt his team is preparing to run at Ruidoso Downs this summer.

For this man, that’s enough of a gamble.

UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to Ed Johnson at Go to to submit a letter to the editor.