01/15/2004 1:00AM

Churchill in Louisiana talks

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Churchill Downs Inc. has met with the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association to discuss the group's legal claims against the Fair Grounds. The Louisiana horsemen's group won a lawsuit against the track last year, asserting that Fair Grounds owes horsemen millions of dollars in revenue from video poker machines. The negotiations between Churchill Downs and the horsemen suggest Churchill is interested in adding Fair Grounds to its roster of racetracks.

A story Wednesday in the New Orleans Times-Picayune described a document produced last fall that proposed terms under which Churchill could acquire the horsemen's claim. The amount Fair Grounds owes has yet to be determined, but could run as high as $90 million.

To protect itself from the lawsuit, Fair Grounds filed bankruptcy last fall. The track has to submit a reorganization plan to bankruptcy court by March 29, and a settlement with the horsemen must be part of the plan.

Bryan Krantz, president of Fair Grounds, declined to comment on the Times-Picayune story, but has confirmed talks between outside parties and the horsemen's group. Krantz said negotiations between Fair Grounds and the horsemen also were ongoing, and that he hoped to preserve the track's current ownership structure.

Churchill owns all or part of seven racetracks, but lacks a winter venue like Fair Grounds. Its main rival, Magna Entertainment, has two winter tracks, Santa Anita and Gulfstream. Fair Grounds also is an attractive acquisition because the State Legislature and local voters have approved the track for slot machines.