05/02/2005 11:00PM

Racing isn't taking backseat to slots

Evangeline Downs
In its new facility, Evangeline Downs is giving equal weight to racing.

OPELOUSAS, La. - Slot machine-racetrack combinations are not a new idea, but Evangeline Downs Racetrack and Casino is unusual in more than one respect. It is the first racino to have been built from the ground up, and management has taken a different kind of approach to this symbiotic relationship between games of chance and the Sport of Kings.

Rather than putting the emphasis on the lucrative slots side of the equation, a strategy employed by many of the big gaming outfits, Evangeline's parent company, Peninsula Gaming, is aggressively seeking to make horse racing profitable on its own.

"We want to carry our weight," said David Yount, executive director of racing operations at Evangeline Downs. "We really think we can become the top racing center in the state. We are right in the middle of Louisiana horse country and there is a lot of tradition in this area."

Horsemen have shown their support during the first month and a half of the new Evangeline's inaugural Thoroughbred meeting, as fields have become some of the largest in the country, averaging more than 10 starters per race. That has resulted in a 10 percent increase in purses effective with the second condition book, bringing average daily purses to $165,000.

"Higher purses bring better horses, which bring fuller fields and more competitive racing, generating larger handles," said Yount. "It all feeds off itself. Last year we averaged 9.45 starters per race, one of the highest in the country. Our ultimate goal is to have the largest field sizes anywhere. We aren't there yet but we are on our way."

Evangeline also wants to obtain additional offtrack betting parlors.

"We ultimately would like to have eight to 10 parlors throughout the state," said Yount. "They create a positive revenue flow and we feel like they are a viable component of this industry."

The new facility itself differs, as one would expect, from the more typical casino annexes that have been added to existing racetracks. The slots area makes a much friendlier transition to the racing side of the physical plant for those wishing to sample both gambling pursuits. The saddling paddock is central to the entire complex and is adjacent to a sports and patio bar along with several restaurants. The clubhouse and grandstand are compact, in the fashion of most new racing facilities, placing players in close proximity to what is going on out on the track.

The new Evangeline is still a work in progress as Yount is the first to admit.

"Our handle is not where we want it to be yet," he said, "but keep in mind that any new track has to go through an adjustment period, especially since we spent almost 40 years at a location 15 miles down the road. These guys with Peninsula are wizards at marketing slots and we are going to use some of that expertise to market our product."