06/26/2003 11:00PM

New-look track wows 'em

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BOSSIER CITY, La. - A renovated Louisiana Downs was met with awe by some fans filing in for the track's opener Friday.

Since the meet ended last winter, Harrah's Entertainment has purchased majority interest in the track, installed 905 slot machines, and made millions of dollars of renovations to both the grandstand and backstretch at the 30-year-old track.

"It's really impressive," said Helen Clemmons, a patron from Texas in town to celebrate her 57th wedding anniversary with her husband, Jack.

"We've been coming here since Louisiana Downs was created. We were really getting disappointed they had let it run down, but Harrah's has done a fabulous job. It's clean, up-to-date, beautiful."

Harrah's spent $74 million to purchase Louisiana Downs, and has budgeted another $110 million for work on the track, including a permanent, 156,000-square-foot slots casino on the southwest end of the track, to be completed by May 2004.

Renovations finished by Friday included a new, landscaped entry to the track, new tiling and carpeting, a renovated paddock and walking ring, a repaved apron, updated concessions and decor featuring murals by renowned equine artist Fred Stone.

On the backstretch, $2 million was put into such improvements as new awnings for each barn in the stable area, and renovated dorm rooms. There are also 100 new light poles in the repaved, fenced parking lot.

Among those who traveled a distance to check out the track were Ryan Driscoll, general manager of Kentucky Downs. Driscoll was director of communications for Louisiana Downs before he went to work for Kentucky Downs in December 2000. He first went to work for Louisiana Downs as an elevator operator in 1987.

"There's a whole new energy here," said Driscoll. "It's exciting to walk through and see all the changes. I think the place is a lot brighter, and a lot more exciting. It's like a brand-new start today."

Louisiana Downs will no longer keep attendance records, because it dropped admission costs Friday, but a steady stream of patrons were filing in before the races, the floors were busy, and there was lots of activity in the casino on the first floor.

"I've been to the casino and lost my money, and now I'm going to play the horses and see if I can get it back," said Clemmons.