02/20/2004 1:00AM

Binion's brand name worth millions

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When I read the headline, "MTR Gaming to acquire Binion's Horseshoe" in Thursday's Las Vegas Review-Journal, it reminded me of the infamous "Man bites dog" story angle.

For years, casino companies have bought racetracks or partnered with them to gain access to valuable slot machine contracts. Now the shoe is on the other foot. MTR Gaming, the parent company of Mountaineer Race Track in Chester, W.Va., wants to buy Binion's Horseshoe, located in downtown Las Vegas.

Binion's was shuttered on Jan. 9 due to financial problems and soon after, gaming giant Harrah's bought the casino, but not the property that it sits upon. Harrah's had openly coveted the World Series of Poker tournament and the Horseshoe brand name. Now it owns both.

What Harrah's is selling to MTR is the brand name Binion's and its casino assets. Harrah's would initially operate the hotel-casino for one year, with two one-year extensions possible. This would ease the transition period for MTR to hire a management team to implement a new business plan.

While no figures have been released, industry analysts suspect the deal to be worth between $15 million and $20 million.

The deal is complex because seven different groups own the land that Binion's is built on. In the early 1950's, downtown was mostly railroad property and deeds were drawn up with the separate owners.

An attorney who represents one of the landowners expressed displeasure with the new owner MTR, calling its management "second rate operators." That's a laughable charge considering that for the last 5 1/2 years the landowners have dealt with Becky Binion Behnen. Industry experts blame her leadership for the demise of the landmark casino.

April 1 is the target date for reopening Binion's. There is much to do over the next six weeks, but when money primes the pump, it will probably get done.

The Nevada Gaming Control Board will schedule a special session in early March to expedite the process. Since MTR possesses a non-restricted gaming license, a major hurdle has already been passed.

MTR has been rapidly growing its business in mid-sized markets. The company owns Mountaineer, Scioto Downs near Columbus, Ohio, and the Ramada Inn and Speedway Casino in North Las Vegas. It has two new projects on tap, to build Presque Isle Downs racetrack in Erie, Pa. and a letter of intent to build a harness track 30 miles north of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

MTR's interest in downtown Las Vegas goes against the grain of industry analysts. Gaming economists predict "doom and gloom" for downtown, especially with increased competition from California tribal gaming and the explosive growth of Internet gaming. But new owners with fresh ideas and money keep popping up.

Don Barden, whose company Majestic Investor bought Fitzgerald's two years ago, called his casino profitable and said the firm will continue to invest in major improvements.

Tim Poster and Tom Breitling, who made their fortune on the Internet with Travelscape.com, last summer bought the two Golden Nuggets, in downtown Las Vegas and in Laughlin. They believe downtown has an "edginess" to it that the Strip doesn't and predict a revitalization of the district.

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