02/04/2005 1:00AM

Aztar continues to slide as others grow

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It's unusual to report from Las Vegas that a casino company is struggling, but it happens. The Aztar Corp., parent company of the Tropicana Hotel and Casino, announced an 81-percent decline in profits compared to the fourth quarter of last year.

In a conference call with investors, Aztar executives gave excuses of bad weather plus construction costs and delays that affected an expansion to their Atlantic City casinos. Fortunately for Aztar, its Nevada operations, the Tropicana in Las Vegas and Ramada Express in Laughlin, continue to perform well.

Wall Street action was heavy on Aztar stock. More than 4.5 million shares were traded, when on a normal day 350,000 shares would change hands. The stock plummeted $3.79 to $29.10 a share.

Other factors have caused investors to bail out while the going was good. Company chairman Paul Rubeli is retiring effective March 1. Aztar is delaying a decision until this fall on what to do with the Tropicana, which is located on prime real estate on the southeast corner of Tropicana and the Las Vegas Strip.

Investment firms have universally downgraded Aztar stock to "underperform."

Investor groups feel the indecision of Aztar to renovate or rebuild the Tropicana has only made the task more daunting and expensive. Aztar has waited while major properties like Wynn Las Vegas, the Palazzo resort at the Venetian, Red Rock Station, the South Coast, the new tower at Caesars Palace, and Project CityCenter by the MGM Mirage, to name a few, are up and coming on the Las Vegas horizon.

As each day passes, construction costs keep skyrocketing, as are the land values.

I judge a casino operation by its race and sports book. My feeling is the race and sports book is the heartbeat of a casino. It provides the excitement and energy that you can't get from banks of slot machines.

The Tropicana, for a strip hotel, is a major disappointment in its race and sports book operation. It provides a small 20-seat Leroy's sports book, which is functional if not convenient due to the chain of Leroy's around Las Vegas, and there is no horse race betting.

One only has to visit a Coast Resorts or Station Casinos property for five minutes to see how a race and sports book adds life to the entire building. Race and sports may not generate as much profit as slot machines, but what it contributes to the overall experience of coming to Las Vegas is priceless.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up radio show.