07/01/2004 11:00PM

In casino world, the big get bigger

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While the skyline of the Strip continues to change, so, too, do the inner workings of Nevada's casino companies.

On Friday, Boyd Gaming Corporation and Coast Casinos completed their $1.3 billion merger, making Boyd the largest locals casino company in Nevada. Earlier this month, the Mandalay Resort Group agreed to be absorbed by the MGM Mirage Corporation. When that merger is complete, it will form the world's biggest casino company.

The Boyd Corporation is now the fifth-largest gaming company in the world, although it will rise a notch when the $7.9 billion MGM Mirage-Mandalay merger is complete. Boyd now operates the former Coast Casinos (Barbary Coast, Gold Coast, Sun Coast, the Orleans) as well as the Stardust, Sam's Town, the Fremont, Main Street Station, and others. Most of these casinos are aimed at the Las Vegas locals market,.

Most industry analysts say they believe the biggest benefit of the merger will be to help Boyd tap into Wall Street for capital to redevelop its Stardust hotel casino. The company's cornerstone Strip property, the Stardust is located close to the $2 billion Wynn Las Vegas megaresort, set to open April 2005.

Harrah's Entertainment on Friday also completed its $1.45 billion purchase of Horseshoe Gaming Holdings Corporation. Horseshoe owns riverboat casinos in Indiana, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and the acquisition of those riverboats will add approximately $60 million a month to the gross gaming revenue of the company and cement Harrah's control of the Horseshoe brand name nationwide.

Earlier this year, Harrah's engineered a deal to buy the Horseshoe brand and its World Championship of Poker tournament as part of the purchase of Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas. It has since sold off the brick-and-mortar business in a leaseback arrangement, but still owns the Horseshoe name. In addition to the Horseshoe brand, Harrah's also owns Harveys, the Rio, and the Showboat.

Investors are also taking stock in Las Vegas gaming companies. The Applied Analysis Gaming Index, which is a weighted average of Nevada-based gaming stocks, closed out June at 258.25, up 5 percent from May and a whopping 53 percent from June 2003. Mandalay Resort Group led the way by posting the single largest gain, based on strong quarterly earnings. The index was also helped by the initial $68-per-share offer by MGM Mirage to buy Mandalay Resorts Group in June.

Those who prefer the structural to the financial should look no further than the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Avenue. There, Caesars Palace is rising from the ruins of construction from its first phase of remodeling. The people mover, a conveyor belt that moved people from streetside to the casino entrance, is gone. Visitors can now enter through the Roman Plaza with its dining, entertainment, and shopping outlets. Also new is the Caesars Palace Amphitheatre, an outdoor multipurpose arena that can seat from 1,600 to 4,500 people.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.