09/20/2007 11:00PM

Last pre-slots meet gets under way

EmailThe Woodlands meet that opens on Sunday is the calm before the casino. It is expected to be the Kansas City, Kansas, track's final meet without slots.

A referendum that passed in June allows the track to build a slots casino, and the first machines are expected to be operational by Feb. 1, 2008, according to the track's general manager, Jayme LaRocca.

The Woodlands, which has separate horse and greyhound racing facilities on its property, will run 25 dates for Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses this meet. The season continues through Oct. 27.

Of the handle on slots, 7 percent is to go to horse purses and 7 percent to greyhound purses. Purses at the current meet will average $50,000 a day, a figure that is projected to surge over the next few meets, said LaRocca.

"We're looking at horse purses probably, I would say, at the $180,000 to $200,000 a day structure once we get the casino in for the first full year, in 2009," said LaRocca, who was named general manager in April. "That's what we've estimated."

The Woodlands is constructing a temporary slots casino that will be located in the greyhound grandstand. It will be an upscale facility with a restaurant and simulcast area, and it will hold 800 to 1,000 slot machines. There are plans for a permanent facility, but a timeline for that is to be determined following the outcome of what LaRocca called a "friendly" lawsuit filed by the state attorney general's office challenging the constitutionality of the bill.

"The grand plan for the permanent facility is to put the greyhound track itself inside of the horse track," LaRocca said. "Then we're going to build a 40,000- to 50,000-square-foot casino attached to the front of the horse track. Everything would be consolidated."

The permanent casino would be built at a cost of $50 to $60 million.

The Woodlands has been trying for slots since 1993. In addition to anticipated purse increases, the machines will provide for more racing. The legislation that passed mandates the track race a minimum of 60 days a year once the casino is in operation a full year.

Horsemen say they are looking forward to the future. Breeders, owners, and trainers have long been active in the bid for slots, from calling lawmakers to lobbying in the community.

"I've been coming here ever since it opened up, and the purses are fair because we've got a lot of Kansas-breds, but it's really going to help," said Butch Gleason, who was the leading Thoroughbred trainer last year at the Woodlands. "The slots coming in are going to make the purses worth a lot more."

Gleason has a 26-horse stable set up for the meet. Other trainers here include Charlie Hunt, who last year was the leading Quarter Horse trainer. Tim Gleason, a past training champ and the cousin of Butch Gleason, will also be based here. The trainers are part of a vast cross-section of outfits that traditionally set up shop at the Woodlands.

"We draw a lot from Fairmount Park, Canterbury, Prairie Meadows, Arapahoe, and, of course, Kansas," said Doug Schoepf, racing secretary at the Woodlands. "We draw from the surrounding states."

Alex Birzer, the leading rider last year at the Woodlands, is back for the new meet. He will be active on the opening card Sunday. The program includes trials for the richest race of the meet, the Gradeo2, $91,000 Kansas Futurity for Quarter Horses on Oct. 6.

The 19-race stakes schedule kicks in here on Sept. 29, with the $20,000 Sunflower for Thoroughbreds and the $15,000 Jayhawk for Quarter Horses. Both races are restricted to horses bred in Kansas.

First post Sunday is 12:30 p.m. Central.