When the Kentucky Derby runs on May 6, Georgia residents and visitors will not be allowed to legally place bets on the Run for the Roses.
Georgia is one of a handful of states that still ban wagering on The Kentucky Derby. But why that is, if it will ever change and, if so, when are complicated questions.
What stands in the way of horse race betting in Georgia?
Five other states also ban betting on horse races such as the Derby, the first leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown: Utah, Hawaii, South Carolina, Alaska and North Carolina (where, technically, the three remote tribal casinos could offer on-site horse-race betting, but have yet to choose to do so).
Why only six states with bans or near-bans? Horse racing specifically was exempted (along with jai alai) from the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA), effectively leaving Nevada with a monopoly on legal sports betting in the US.
New Jersey officials challenged that ban in a six-year legal battle that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court nullifying PASPA in 2018.
Most states already had legal parimutuel betting on horse races even before PASPA was enacted. That five-year-old ruling allowed for even more wagering in any state whose legislators and governor wanted it.
However, horse-race betting in Georgia had no prior history. Legislative efforts – particularly in 2019 and 2022 – have failed to legalize wagering on horses on its own or lumping it in with legislation legalizing casinos and sports betting.
Legal authorities agree that a statewide referendum would have to be approved by residents to allow for casinos, so tacking legal horse-race wagering onto casino legislation muddies the waters across the board. However, a 2019 bill for horse-race betting died in committee, so that approach also appears fraught.
In the 2023 legislative session, another bill failed in the state Senate that would have legalized wagering on horse racing without the need for a constitutional amendment. That’s because the bill envisioned fixed-odds wagers made under the authority of the state lottery and not in the traditional parimutuel way through a horse race track or off-track betting site.
Under the parimutuel system, bettors wager against each other and odds fluctuate based on how much is bet on particular horses. The “house” takes a cut of the total amount wagered while transferring money from losers to winners. Under a fixed-odds wagering system – how traditional sports betting functions – a contracted company (the sportsbook) would set odds and take on risk of losing if the bettors are savvy enough to beat them.
Fixed-odds wagering is common in horse racing around the globe, but only New Jersey and Colorado offer it in the US.
Why no parimutuel wagering in Georgia? Not only would that constitutional amendment have to be accepted by voters, but to get to the ballot, it would take a two-thirds majority vote by both chambers of the General Assembly. Looking at those numbers, it’s fair to say that horse-race betting remains a non-starter in the Georgia Legislature.
While Georgians still have some reasonable out-of-state options a short drive away, failures to legalize horse racing are not without serious consequences. As in any wagering market, when the legal market is denied, the dangerous illegal market establishes itself and, in this case, puts both bettors and animals at risk.
What’s a horse race without a bet? And how young is too young?
Strangely, while Georgia law outlaws horse-race betting, horse racing is legal in the state. Horse breeders in Georgia are plentiful, and the industry operates a couple of major races though these happen sporadically.
If horse-race wagering were legalized, there is also the issue of setting the legal age to place wagers on horse races. Most states set the legal age to bet on horses at 18. Only Arizona, Iowa, Nevada and Texas set it at 21, the traditional legal age for most other forms of gambling and sports betting.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear recently signed a bill into law allowing for legal sports betting for those aged 18 and older. That’s the same sports betting age for states such as Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Montana. As a result, bettors in those states can wager on sports and horse racing when they turn 18.
Betting age complications exist in states such as New Jersey. In the Garden State, those aged 18 to 20 can enter the Meadowlands Racetrack – the most iconic harness-racing track in the world – and wager not only on those races but also on other harness races and thoroughbred races from other tracks.
But if they make a left at the entrance and head to the FanDuel Sportsbook within the grounds, they will be turned away until they turn 21.
As New Jersey indicates, the question of how to set age requirements for horse racing becomes more complicated with race tracks connected to casinos with sportsbooks. In Georgia, a state with no casinos, this question could come into play with legislation putting forth retail casino sportsbooks that allow horse-race betting.
Blame it on Bobby Jones
The Georgia House of Representatives passed a parimutuel betting bill in March 1935 – only to nullify its vote a day later.
According to a Georgia State Law Review article published in 2021, Augusta National Golf Club President Bobby Jones – then on the verge of playing host to the second annual edition of the Masters – may have used his influence to sway lawmakers.
“Though the record is muddled on exactly how much political clout Jones had regarding the specifics of the legislation, the record suggests that someone involved with the Masters was concerned about whether folks would be betting on the tournament,” wrote Preston Dunaway.
Almost 80 years later, Georgians still are waiting on wagering on horse racing, on sporting events, and at casinos.