06/27/2001 11:00PM

Slots to the rescue, and none too soon

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BOSSIER CITY, La. - Its age is showing. Badly.

From the tired-looking barn area to the drab paddock, from the outdated infield tote board to the faded green carpet in the winner's circle, from the overgrown bushes of the outer upper stretch to the weeds pushing up through the parking lot, Louisiana Downs really could use a makeover.

And it's getting one.

"This is real," said Ray Tromba, the track's general manager and vice president whose tenure at Louisiana Downs dates to 1987.

Construction of a lavish casino to rival the six riverboats located within 10 miles of the racetrack will begin in earnest this fall. The entire look of Louisiana Downs will change dramatically. Its front entrance will be transformed into a modern breezeway, complete with retail shops. A 300- to 400-room hotel will be built next to the upper stretch. Simulcast parlors will be state-of-the-art. All sorts of amenities will be added.

The total price tag to Dr. John York, who in 1997 bought the track outright from his family's company, the DeBartolo Corp., will be about $90 million, not counting the hotel.

The impetus to this historic turnabout came last year, when the Louisiana Legislature passed a bill that permits slot-machine gaming at Louisiana Downs. The last major hurdle was cleared in March, when Louisiana Downs was granted its gaming license.

Tromba, who was instrumental in the lobbying of Louisiana politicians, says his track has hit the jackpot. In slots, about 87 percent of bets are returned to players. From the gross winnings, Louisiana Downs will get to keep 18 percent for Thoroughbred purses (a Quarter Horse meet mandated by the new bill also will start next year).

"One major advantage for us is we've been able to see how other tracks have gone about this," he said. "We've gone to see what they've done at Prairie Meadows, at Delaware, at Woodbine. We think we're going to take the positives from all that we've learned and make this different than anybody else has ever done it. It will be a marriage of the best of what casino gaming and horse racing have to offer"

For years, Louisiana Downs had been sliding down the totem pole of North America's racetracks. Opened in 1974, its glory years were the early 1980's through the early 1990's. But then Louisiana began a state lottery, and then casinos crowded into the Shreveport neighborhood. By the mid-90's, this track was struggling mightily to keep customers and its best horsemen.

Through it all, the people most loyal to Louisiana Downs persisted. "We changed our business formula to adapt, dug our heels in," said Tromba. For example, the track began an outside catering company that boosted the bottom line. "It isn't always cutting jobs or programs," he said. "Who gets hurt the most then? The customer."

In the meantime, while the quality of racing declined, Tromba tried to insure that horsemen remained pacified. The dirt track was overhauled in 1994, using imported Ponderosa bark at an estimated annual cost of $125,000. The turf course often is praised by horsemen as safe and resilient. "Even when times were the toughest, we never spared a nickel on those surfaces," said Tromba.

A whole roster of horsemen's facilities and improvements already part of phase two of the new construction, and "after some of this new money comes rolling in, we'll start taking care of everything else that needs to be done in other areas of the racing operation," he added.

The dawn of this new era has elicited a wave of optimism.

"We've all been hanging in there," said Sam David Jr., a perennial top-five trainer here. "Louisiana Downs is a different place because of all the boats around it. Now we'll have a first-class facility to compete."

Tromba is hopeful that nationally known trainers such as Tom Amoss, Bobby Barnett, and Al Stall Jr. eventually will be enticed to return to their old stomping grounds.

"Nobody ever left here because they didn't like it," said Tromba. "They left because the purses dwindled."

Racing secretary Pat Pope said he is "conservatively optimistic" that good times will return.

"I want to wait until the coins start going into the machines," said Pope. "But what I'd like to see is for us to return to the level of the other major tracks in the region." Pope and Tromba said they expected that annual racing dates could increase from the current 89 to about 100 to 120.

Even when slots become a major attraction, Tromba and Pope are intent on keeping horse racing the primary focus at Louisiana Downs. Simulcasting will be expanded to 24 hours a day, with signals imported from tracks in Australia, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.

"We can't lose, nor will we lose, our identity as a racetrack," said Tromba. "That's what we are. We've got something that the other casinos around here don't, and we plan to take full advantage of that."

Indeed, those rivals for the local gambling dollar had better beware: The old Louisiana Downs, the one showing its age, is about to flex its new muscles.