10/06/2003 12:00AM

Fair Grounds wins on slots

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Voters in Orleans Parish, La., passed a referendum Saturday allowing Fair Grounds to open a slot machine parlor. The measure was supported by 58 percent of the vote.

At the earliest, the slots would open in fall of 2004. The referendum will have no direct effect on the upcoming Fair Grounds season. Although the number of machines Fair Grounds can operate is far fewer than other tracks in the state, the measure's passage breathes life into a struggling operation.

Fair Grounds still faces a licensing investigation by the Louisiana State Police.

The track has been approved to operate 300 machines through June 30, 2004; 400 through June 30, 2005; and 500 after that date. Fair Grounds could get an additional 200 machines if monthly revenues at Harrah's Casino in New Orleans exceed a set figure.

In 2000, Fair Grounds reached an agreement with Harrah's in which the casino waived its exclusive right to operate slots in Orleans Parish, but it was only last spring that the track won legislative approval for slots.

Fair Grounds is the only Louisiana racetrack not fully approved for slots. Delta Downs, which runs concurrently with Fair Grounds, lured horses away from New Orleans last season with enormous, slots-boosted claiming-race and statebred purses. Fair Grounds, for the second straight year, lowered purses during its meet.

A defeat of the referendum could have devastated the track, according to Fair Grounds general manger Bryan Krantz. The track lost a lawsuit to Louisiana horsemen last spring and may owe close to $100 million in unpaid purse money generated by video poker machines.