11/16/2001 1:00AM

Once again, slots exert their hold


Quick, name the three most expensive recent racetrack purchases: Hollywood Park, $140 million; Santa Anita Park, $126 million; Delta Downs, $115 million.

Delta Downs? If we needed a reminder of the power of slots machines at racetracks, Delta Downs, in Vinton, La., is it.

Delta Downs plans to open a slots casino next month and the track's new owner, Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming, anticipates the machines will dramatically boost revenue.

"It provided us with an entrance into a strong and growing gaming market," said Rod Stillwell, spokesman for Boyd Gaming, of the purchase of Delta Downs, which is only five miles from the Texas border. "It's only 120 miles from Houston. It's a great location in regards that it's 25 miles closer to Houston than the Lake Charles riverboat community."

Two years ago Las Vegan Shawn Scott and his partner Jimho Cho, who is from Hawaii, purchased Delta Downs for $10 million.

Scott intended to install slot machines at the track and worked to pass the referendum that allowed slots, Stillwell said. But financial problems prompted Scott to put the 220-acre property up for sale.

"There were three bidders for the property: Isle of Capri, Harrah's, and us," said Stillwell. "We were the preferred bidder.

"The fair price range is $115 to $125 million. The range is ultimately tied into the number of slot machines that end up in the casino."

Boyd seeks to install 1,700 slot machines.

The sale was completed in May. Since then, Boyd has invested $35 million to renovate and expand Delta Downs.

Delta Downs will have a 32,000-square-foot casino, a 400-seat buffet, a 200-seat restaurant, a sports bar, and a food court. Improvements have been made both to the frontside and the backside. Boyd may add a hotel to the mix in the future.

Delta opened its fall meet on Saturday. The first condition book showed an increase in daily purses to $85,000 from $35,000 last meet. Management hopes to boost purses to $125,000 when the slot machines become operable.

Chris Kotulak, a familiar name to Las Vegans as the former voice of Hollywood Park, is the new track announcer at Delta Downs.

Boyd Gaming also operates the Treasure Chest riverboat casino in Kenner, La. The company promoted Jack Bernsmeier to senior vice president and director of operations for both Delta Downs and the Treasure Chest.

Boyd hopes to capitalize on its market share in Middle America to promote tourism for its Las Vegas properties.

"We make sure our customers are aware of the exciting things we have going on here in Las Vegas," Stillwell said.

Richard Eng is turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap-Up Show.