05/01/2007 11:00PM

Multi-faceted growth spurt underway

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Louisiana Downs has revamped its stakes schedule for the 92-date meet that opens on Friday in one of a series of significant changes to racing operations at the track, which is also home to 1,400 slot machines.

The pick six is also making a comeback after a two-year absence. A 150-room hotel is under construction on the property. And an offtrack betting facility will open in mid-May near neighboring Mississippi.

"I think this is the start of a whole new growth for Louisiana Downs," said Mark Midland, vice president of racing operations at the Bossier City, La., track. "I think years from now we may look back and say this is the time that things really started to kick in and get to the next level."

Midland said the changes are being made with an eye toward growing purses. He said purses will average close to $210,000 a day, up from $202,000 a day in 2006. Midland looks for daily purse distribution to grow at a rate of $10,000 to $15,000 a year through 2009, calling the hotel a catalyst for increased play in both the slots casino and on the races, and the OTB a new source of funds for the track.

The OTB is located in Mound, La., near Vicksburg, Miss., and is the first in the 34-year-history of Louisiana Downs, said Midland.

Harrah's, which owns Louisiana Downs, is a partner in the new hotel. Construction began in March.

"It's going to be a Marriott SpringHill Suites, and it's expected to be completed in the spring of 2008," said Midland.

The Grade 2, $500,000 Super Derby on Sept. 22 is again the centerpiece of the $3.4 million stakes schedule. It will be supported by four turf stakes, each worth $200,000. The idea of grouping stakes on a single card will be a new theme this meet, with at least one major card of stakes to be run each month here through the Super Derby.

"We think the big stakes days are going to give us an additional boost, especially starting them earlier in the meet," said Midland. "That will really help."

Louisiana Downs experienced two of its highest handles on major stakes days last year. The track set an all-time record on Super Derby Day, when it handled $7.3 million on its card. The second-highest handle of the meet, $3.1 million, was reached on Louisiana Downs Champions Day.

This year, major stakes days include those two cards and a new Super Derby Prelude Day, when five stakes worth $400,000 will be run Aug. 18. The program is topped by the $100,000 Prelude, which is a prep for the Super Derby. Also on the Prelude card are a pair of $75,000 turf races for 2-year-olds, both designed as preps for the $200,000 Sunday Silence and $200,000 Happy Ticket on the Super Derby undercard. The new turf races coincide with the creation of a pair of juvenile turf races for the Breeders' Cup.

"We've got the richest 2-year-old turf series leading into the Breeders' Cup," said Midland. "We felt it was a nice niche to fill.

"The thing about the turf races on Super Derby Day, that's really a time when there's not a lot of turf racing in the country, so we do generate a lot of interest in those turf races."

New trainers at the meet include Jack Van Berg, who has a division here. And for the first time in close to a decade, there will be a new leading trainer at Louisiana Downs. Cole Norman, who has won the past nine titles dating back to 1998, is serving a six-month suspension for a medication infraction that will span most of the meet. The season runs through Oct. 20.

Lonnie Meche, who won the riding title a year ago, will miss the start of the season with an injury. The colony will include his brothers, Donnie and Cody Meche, and Carlos Gonzalez.

John Jacinto is back, and has the mount on stakes winner Tortuga Flats in the featured 10th race on Friday, an optional claiming turf sprint for fillies and mares on what is the first local card for new racing secretary Doug Bredar.