06/27/2001 11:00PM

Before long, you won't know the joint


BOSSIER CITY, La. - Take one long, last look.

The Louisiana Downs that opens Saturday is a racetrack that soon will be part of the past.

The future Louisiana Downs, replete with the jingling of slot machines, is one that promises to revitalize horse racing to an extent unseen in this region of the U.S. When the second of two meets ends Nov. 11, major construction will begin on a casino area that will house nearly 1,800 machines, from which revenues are expected to allow purses to skyrocket in coming seasons.

Already, with some construction having begun, major changes are under way at 27-year-old Louisiana Downs. They could not have come at a better time.

"We've gone through some real tough times here," said Ray Tromba, the track's longtime vice president and general manager. "But blue skies are ahead."

At the 58-day summer meet that runs Saturday through Sept. 23, per-day purses are expected to average about $150,000. At the 31-day fall meet that will run Sept. 28 to

Nov. 11, purses will average only about $85,000.

Those mediocre numbers have come to characterize Louisiana Downs racing in recent seasons.

But that's about to end. With the first-floor casino scheduled to be operational before the 2002 meet begins, purses here could very well exceed those at Lone Star, Oaklawn, and Fair Grounds by 2003 or 2004, significantly strengthening this well-traveled circuit.

"Right now that's my modest goal, to get us back with those other tracks," racing secretary Pat Pope said.

As the casino revenue improves the quality of racing, the popularity of the simulcast signal also should increase. That, in turn, will boost racing revenues. It is an enviable cycle that has many people looking to the future.

The opening-day feature, the $40,000 Arcadia Stakes, figures to have a strong favorite in Prince Slew, owned by Clarence Mitchell Jr. Seven Louisiana-bred 3-year-olds are entered.

The first major stakes of the meet comes Wednesday, when the $100,000 Independence Stakes is run for older horses. Probables include Candid Glen, Nat's Big Party, Vilaxy, and Rebridled. As usual, the meet highlight is the $500,000 Super Derby, to be run Sept. 23.

Among the trainers expected to vie for the training title are Steve Asmussen and Cole Norman, while top jockeys returning are Tony Lovato, Kirk LeBlanc, Carlos Gonzalez, and David Guillory.

First post for the 10-race opener is 1:45 p.m. Central.