05/11/2004 11:00PM

Wow factor high as new meet opens

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BOSSIER CITY, La. - The home of the Super Derby is now the home of a super casino. Louisiana Downs will open for a 102-date Thoroughbred meet on Friday, and patrons returning to the track for the first time this year will be struck by a new 156,000-square-foot slots casino and dining area that now serves as the main entrance to the track.

"Anyone who comes to the property can't leave without saying, 'Wow, what a place,' " said Ray Tromba, vice president of racing operations for Harrah's Louisiana Downs.

The casino addition is part of a $110 million expansion project at Louisiana Downs, and it features 1,402 slots, three restaurants, and an upscale bar. Until two weeks ago, the track was operating 905 machines on one end of the first floor of the grandstand.

"We've taken a giant leap from last year to this year," said Tromba. "Last year, we stated within the next three to five years that we planned on trying to make Harrah's Louisiana Downs one of the top racetrack and casino environments - if not the top environment - in the United States. I think we're well on our way."

Harrah's, which has casino properties around the country, purchased Louisiana Downs on Dec. 20, 2002, and had slots installed by May 2003. All along, plans were to construct a permanent casino and expand the number of machines, and that came to fruition when the casino addition opened on April 30.

"I'm really impressed with the building, and that they finished it [on time]," said Cole Norman, who has won the last six training titles at Louisiana Downs. "I think it's going to attract a lot of people, and that's going to be good for us. It's going to help us with purses.

"I think for years to come, things are just going to get better and better."

Purse distribution for the Thoroughbred meet is budgeted at just over $17 million, up from $13.4 million last year. On average, $200,000 a day in purses will be paid out through the day after the running of the Grade 2, $500,000 Super Derby on Sept. 25. Purses will then average $150,000 a day, a record for the fall portion of the meet, which continues through Oct. 31.

Outside of the casino, the single biggest change this meet is the racing calendar. Louisiana Downs has added 22 more dates for Thoroughbreds in 2004. The track will also hold its first Quarter Horse meet later in the year, from Nov. 11 through Dec. 12. During that meet, purse distribution will be about $4.2 million, according to Tromba.

In recent years, Louisiana Downs had opened in late June. But this year, for the first time since 1996, the track is reclaiming the spring dates it gave up when Lone Star Park near Dallas opened in April 1997.

"As far back as 1997, horsemen every year have asked me to please consider going back to these days," said Tromba.

For their part, horsemen are filling up the barn area. Pat Pope, director of racing operations and racing secretary at Louisiana Downs, said there were 1,326 horses on the grounds as of Tuesday. He said more are expected before the meet's opening on Friday.

Pope said that last year's 10 leading trainers by races won are all back. Among them are Norman, as well as Steve Asmussen, who also ranked as the meet's leading owner last year. Others include Donnie Von Hemel, Larry Robideaux, Troy Young, Sam David, and Stanley Roberts.

Newcomers to the meet include trainers Al Stall Jr., Gerald Romero, Terry Dunlavy, and Ronald Ardoin, the track's all-time winningest jockey who has retired and will train a 20-horse stable at Louisiana Downs.

Gerard Melancon, who has won the past two riding titles at the track, is back, heading a colony that includes Kirk LeBlanc, Lonnie Meche, John Jacinto, Roman Chapa, Luis Quinonez, and Don Simington.

The 61-race stakes schedule will get under way Friday with the inaugural running of the $50,000 John Franks Memorial. Among the stakes winners in the 13-horse field are White Star, Witt Ante, and Old Lee.

At a glance: Louisiana Downs

RACING SCHEDULE: 102 days, from Friday through Oct. 31. Racing on a Thursday-through-Sunday basis, and on three holiday Mondays:

May 31, July 5, and Sept. 6.

POST TIME: 2:05 p.m. Central, except Super Derby Day, Sept. 25, and Breeders' Cup Day,

Oct. 30. Posts for those dates will be announced. Also, there is a special 12:30 p.m. post on closing day, Oct. 31.

HIGHLIGHTS: Grade 2, $500,000 Super Derby on Sept. 25; $100,000 Harrah's Louisiana Downs Handicap on Sept. 26; the Louisiana Breeders' Festival, featuring 12 stakes for Louisiana-breds on Oct. 23.

ADMISSIONS: Free

PARKING: Free

ADDRESS: Located at the intersections of Interstates 20 and 220, or 8000 East Texas Street, Bossier City, La., 71111.

PHONE: (318) 742-5555

INTERNET: www.ladowns.com