04/22/2008 11:00PM

Casino still a work in progress

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Thoroughbred racing returns to Indiana Downs Friday amid a maze of construction that has already produced a new paddock and jockey quarters, four new barns and, perhaps most importantly, work on the Indiana Live! Casino.

Work on the 233,000-square-foot permanent facility, which will house 2,000 gaming machines, is in progress with a January 2009 opening expected. Workers are preparing a temporary casino pavilion - slated to open in late May - across the grounds from the grandstand, near the six-furlong chute. The 60,000-square-foot structure is being made of a semi-rigid plastic over an aluminum frame. It will hold approximately 1,900 gaming machines until the main casino's opening.

"You might call it organized chaos," the track's general manager, Jon Schuster, said by telephone on Wednesday morning.

Indiana has set a new precedent in casino gambling, with Indiana Downs and Hoosier Park putting up $250 million each for their gaming licenses. In addition, each track is required to make $100 million in capital improvements to its facility.

Two new horse barns will be ready for Friday's opening with another pair of barns slated to be ready early in the 54-day meet, bringing the track's stable capacity to approximately 650 horses. The jockey quarters and paddock have been moved from the west side of the grandstand to the north end at around the eighth pole.

The seven-furlong turf course is tentatively scheduled to open in early May.

"It's always tough here in Indiana and the Midwest to get the turf ready to go," Schuster said. "We had some weird weather here this winter. We try to schedule races by Kentucky Derby Day, the public enjoys the turf racing so much."

Racing will be conducted on a Friday-to-Saturday and Monday-through-Wednesday schedule. Post time is 6:55 p.m. Eastern on Friday and Saturday with the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday cards starting at 4:55 p.m. The opening-day card offers about $126,000 in purse money, which Schuster said would be about average. The cards will feature nine Thoroughbred and three Quarter Horse races daily.

Slot-machine revenue is not expected to have a big effect on this year's Thoroughbred meet.

"By the time we get opened and the accounting is done, possibly towards to the end of meet we'll see a purse bump," Schuster said. An 80-day harness meet follows the Thoroughbreds at the dual-purpose facility. Schuster said harness purses should benefit from the casino.

Ralph Martinez is returning to defend his training title from last year and is being joined by regulars Kim Hammond, Barbara McBride, Randy Klopp, and George Leonard. The jockey colony is headed by the defending champion, Victor Lebron, along with Tommy Pompell, Rodney Prescott, Fernando de la Cruz, and Terry Houghton. Both Martinez and Lebron also captured meet titles at Hoosier Park last fall.