Updated on 09/17/2011 10:49AM

Years in the making

Harrahs Louisiana Downs
Starting Friday, bettors will get to play horses and slots under one roof at Louisiana Downs.

BOSSIER CITY, La. - The wait is over.

For seven years, people have been eager to see horses and slot machines under one roof at Louisiana Downs. It will happen Friday, when the track opens for an 80-day meet that runs through Nov. 9.

The public, as well as horsemen, have been awaiting slot machines at Louisiana Downs since the fall of 1997, when a local referendum allowing gaming at the track passed with 70 percent of the vote. No one expected it would take six more years before the first machines were up and running, on May 21, 2003.

But most agree it has been worth the wait. Purses will average $200,000 a day during the summer meet, which runs through Sept. 21. That kind of money puts the 30-year-old Louisiana Downs back on par with such top tracks in the region as Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, and Lone Star Park.

And in the autumn, a fall-meet-record $150,000 a day will be paid out, bringing the guaranteed purse distribution this meet to at least $13 million. Last year, the payout was $12 million.

"I have to pinch myself every day when I come to work," said Ray Tromba, vice president of racing operations.

Tromba has been with the track 17 years. In the last six months, he has watched Louisiana Downs be transformed into a Las Vegas-style racino, with 905 slot machines on the first floor of the grandstand. The plant has also been made over with new floors, d?cor, and concessions, all at the hands of Harrah's Entertainment, which purchased majority interest in Louisiana Downs for $74 million on Dec. 20, 2002.

"This has been the fastest acquisition and renovation of a property in the 65-year history of the company," said Thomas Roberts, senior vice president and general manager of Harrah's Shreveport Casino and Harrah's Louisiana Downs.

Roberts said renovations to the racing plant and backstretch, scheduled to be complete by Friday, are the first phase of a $110 million improvement project at the track. The second phase is a permanent, 156,000-square-foot casino being built alongside the southwest end of the grandstand.

When complete, the building will house 1,500 slot machines and serve as the main entry into the track. Construction on the project is ongoing and self-contained, and will not impact racing activities. The building is scheduled to be complete in May 2004.

A future phase of improvements at Louisiana Downs could include a hotel, said Roberts.

Last month's opening of the track's slots casino was intended to be a gradual process, with a formal grand opening set for Friday. Horsemen, however, have been earning money toward purses since May 21.

Before taxes, 18 percent of slot- machine revenues are set aside for purses. Of that amount, 15 percent goes to the overall purse fund; 2 percent to Thoroughbred breeders; and 1 percent to Quarter Horse breeders. And of the 15 percent set aside for purses, Louisiana-breds will get 30 percent, as well as a portion of the remaining 70 percent, making for some rich races for statebreds.

The slots-fueled purses have drawn a number of new stables to take on five-time defending champion trainer Cole Norman.

Steve Asmussen, the national leader in wins last year, Donnie Von Hemel, and Stanley Roberts all plan to have an increased presence this year while new trainers include Bret Calhoun, Morris Nicks, Barry Germany, and C.W. "Bubba" Cascio.

Plans call for at least 10 races a day, and it appears Louisiana Downs has the horsepower to support that policy. Pat Pope, the track's racing secretary, said he received stall applications seeking space for 2,800 horses. The track can hold 1,400. Pope said that through Tuesday there were 350 more sets of foal papers registered with the racing office than at the same time a year ago.

"It's exciting," he said. "There are many more people asking questions about this area; more people sending horses to different trainers in this area."

Louisiana Downs is the second track in the state behind Delta Downs to install slot machines. First post Friday is 2:05 p.m. Central.