Updated on 09/16/2011 8:40AM

Betting on slots before they arrive

Brian Burgess
In anticipation of a flood of slot revenue next year, Louisiana Downs has significantly boosted purses for its summer meet.

BOSSIER CITY, La. - They're not waiting to hear slot machines dinging at Louisiana Downs: Instead, track officials have decided to pay out purses as if the machines were already running.

When Louisiana Downs opens an 80-day meet Friday, purses will average $200,000 a day. That's 58 percent more than last year, when purses averaged $126,000. More important, it puts Louisiana Downs on par with other tracks in the Southwest, such as Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., and Lone Star Park near Dallas, each of which distribute more than $225,000 a day.

Horsemen have taken notice of the increase, and the meet has attracted a handful of solid new trainers - including Stanley Roberts, Donnie Von Hemel, and Kenny Smith - as well as Cole Norman, the four-time defending champ.

It all comes down to slots. Awarded a license to operate slots in March 2001, the track is under contract to be sold to a group of local businessmen for $54 million. The new owners were willing to increase purses to begin ushering in what they hope will be an era of growth at the track, which is tucked into the northwest corner of the state near Shreveport.

The extra cash required for the higher purses - which track officials expect to be in the $2.5 million range - could be made up in as little as a month's time once slots come on line at the track in late summer or early fall of 2003, the officials said. "When slots are up and operating, we'll recover much of those funds in a hurry," said Ray Tromba, vice president and general manager of Louisiana Downs.

The higher purse structure will apply to the summer meet which runs from Friday to Sept. 22. Purses will drop to $100,000 a day for the fall meet which runs from Sept. 26 to Nov. 10.

John Franks, an Eclipse Award winner and 17-time leading owner at Louisiana Downs, said he was excited about the new purse structure and about the track's future. "I think it's very competitive with a lot of good tracks around the country," he said.

Franks has operated his principle business, Franks Petroleum, in Shreveport since 1964, and he said he knows or has done business with the track's new investors. "They have good reputations," said Franks. "I think everything is going to jell."

The new ownership group is undergoing routine background checks by the Louisiana State Police. Once the checks have been completed, the owners will appear before the Louisiana Racing Commission and the Louisiana Gaming Control Board for final approvals. Despite the lengthy process, the sale should be complete by the end of the meet. "I'm not sure that things could be expedited any quicker," said Tromba.

In addition to the new purse structure, Louisiana Downs has made changes to its racing schedule and to its marquee race, the $500,000 Super Derby. In a nutshell, both have been shortened. The track has dropped Mondays this meet and will race four days a week from Thursday to Sunday.

As for the Super Derby, the trip has been cut from 1 1/4 miles to 1 1/8 miles. The race will also run as a Grade 2 this year after being conducted as a Grade 1 since 1983. The new distance is in response to requests from horsemen over the past several years, said Pat Pope, the track's racing secretary.

Pope is hopeful the new purse increase this meet will lead to fuller, competitive fields. "I expect to see more higher priced claiming races and allowances go more consistently," said Pope.

For its opening day program, Louisiana Downs has carded 11 races. The feature is the $50,000 Kings Court, headed by Beau's Town, who is looking for his seventh straight win. First post is 3 p.m. Central.