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Hitching horses to the slots bandwagon
By Alan Sayre | Associated Press
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Published: 11/25/2007 12:14 AM

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NEW ORLEANS -- The Fair Grounds Race Course kicked off its 81-day thoroughbred meet Thursday with an added attraction: 245 slot machines the track hopes will boost purses and help it compete against other winter racing ovals.

After delays caused by the track's sale to Churchill Downs Inc. in 2004 and a season wiped out after Hurricane Katrina, the Fair Grounds has converted the first floor of its off-track betting parlor into a slots room.

''It will go a long way to our goal of being the premier race track during the winter months,'' Fair Grounds President Randy Soth said.

During winter, the Fair Grounds has two prime competitors for top barns: Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla., and Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs, Ark. Both had a head start in using gambling machine proceeds to boost purses.

Video poker and video blackjack have been running for about a year at Oaklawn, which estimated $1.5 million will be added from the machines to purses at its next meet. Gulfstream Park, which also got slots about a year ago, hasn't decided how large a boost its purses will get, spokesman Mike Mullaney said.

''If you look at the state of Louisiana, the other three tracks have had slots for several years,'' Soth said. ''It's a matter of not only being competitive in your in-state market, but competing for horsemen during the winter racing season.''

Bigger purses

In the racing world, tracks with the fattest purses stand the best chance of getting barns with the superior horses -- along with the largest betting handles. The Fair Grounds meet, which runs through March 23, starts with an average of $350,000 a day in purses.

Soth said he hopes purses eventually will rise to levels that ''would allow us to pick and choose horsemen.''

Slots opened at the Fair Grounds in September. They took in just under $1.3 million during October, the first full month of operation. Soth said more play is expected during the racing season, hopefully generating about $2.8 million in additional annual purse money. The track is expected to open a permanent casino with 700 slots in November 2008.

For Louisville, Ky.-based Churchill Downs, the Fair Grounds is its only winter racing outlet. The company also owns Churchill Downs at Louisville, Calder Race Course at Miami and Arlington Park in Arlington Heights. None races during winter.

Churchill and the rest of the Kentucky racing industry have been pushing to legalize slots at tracks. Gov.-elect Steve Beshear, a Democrat, said his recent victory over incumbent Republican Ernie Fletcher, a gambling foe, signaled Kentuckians want the chance to decide the fate of casino gambling.

Debating slots

The heightened discussion about legalizing casinos in Kentucky is also sparking new talk in Ohio and Illinois about legalized wagering.

In Illinois, legislative leaders walked out of meetings in Chicago on Nov. 13 during which proposals for casino expansion and slot machines were discussed as a bailout option for mass transit deficits and billions more targeted for road improvements.

Political battles between Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich governor and House Speaker Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, have been largely blamed for months of gridlock on the casino package and transit bailout.

The transit bailout has been linked by Republicans and Senate President Emil Jones, a Chicago Democrat, to a casino expansion proposal that would bring in billions of dollars for new roads. Legislative leaders and the governor are considering up to three new casinos, including one in Chicago, as well as slots at racetracks like Arlington Park.

Madigan, however, wants to raise the sales tax to bailout the CTA, Pace and Metra and has been lukewarm on new casinos. He recently called gambling a social evil that ruins families. Senate leaders, however, said the sales tax won't find support on their side of the state Capitol.

"Responsible people have to act now before the end of the year," said Jim Reilly, head of the Regional Transportation Authority.

Gov. Blagojevich reportedly wants legislators to return to Springfield on Wednesday to break the dispute and settle the transit issue.

The transformation

Veteran Fair Grounds trainer Al Stall, a third-generation horseman, said he expects the slots to raise purses but doesn't expect a huge windfall because of competition from three casinos in the New Orleans area.

But Stall, who will have a barn of 50 horses, said the machines are a logical evolution for the track, which added off-track betting and video poker over the past 20 years as gambling expanded in Louisiana and Mississippi.

''It's been a transformation,'' Stall said. ''That's where the money is coming from.''

According to a study several years ago by the University of New Orleans, the Fair Grounds provided a $353 million annual economic impact, including $18.6 million in state and local taxes. The track, its eight New Orleans-area OTB parlors and the slots facility will employ about 900 people. Another 600 people will work with trainers and horses.

The Fair Grounds plans 64 stakes races, including 10 graded races that will be mostly concentrated on two programs. The races carry a combined $7.3 million in purses.

The big day will be March 8, when the track will stage the Louisiana Derby, its Kentucky Derby prep at 1 1/16 miles, and the Fair Grounds Oaks, a prep for the Kentucky Oaks at 1 1/16 miles. Other graded stakes on that program include the Mervin H. Muniz Memorial Handicap for older horses at 1 miles on the turf and the New Orleans Handicap for older horses at 1 miles.

The Louisiana Derby will carry a $600,000 purse, the meet's largest, while the New Orleans Handicap and the Muniz Handicap will have $500,000 purses.

Tom Early, secretary-treasurer of the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders Association, said slot-fueled purses at Delta Downs at Vinton, Evangeline Downs at Opelousas and Louisiana Downs at Bossier City have pushed up sale prices in recent years for state-bred yearlings. This year's average sale price was down a bit because of a jump in the number of young horses offered, he said.

This year, Early doesn't expect slot machines to make a big difference in Fair Grounds purses.

''After the machines have been on for a while, through the spring and summer, I think you'll begin seeing an impact next year,'' he said.

Early said Delta Downs is offering an average of about $200,000 in purses, Evangeline has about $150,000 to offer and Louisiana Downs runs between $175,000 to $200,000.

Whether or not the slots result in more money around the oval, Stall said he hopes the track -- the third-oldest in the nation behind Saratoga and Pimlico -- will be able to keep its main attention on the horses.

''I'd hate for it to become all flashing lights and ringing bells,'' he said.