Slots to boost track purses

Jul 1, 2003 6:53 AM

Back in the middle 80’s when Ray Tromba joined GM Tom Sweeney’s management team at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, La., the Ed DeBartolo, Sr., racetrack was still seen as one of the shining lights in the thoroughbred racing industry.

Little could he foresee that within the next decade, the track would see its lofty position crumble as Louisiana’s riverboat casinos took their toll on what used to be a gambling monopoly.

Ed DeBartolo’s children realized that in order to compete they also would have to meet the gaming challenge as other racetracks had done: install video lottery terminals. A 1997 referendum approving slots at the Downs passed but the following year permissive legislation failed. But last year, that was reversed and a gaming license was authorized.

Enter Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. (HET). The company purchased a majority position in the property and by mid-May the slots began humming. For the time being, at least until a permanent 156,000 square foot casino being built alongside the track’s grandstand is available, the temporary facility is housing 905 slot machines. There will be at least 1,500 machines in operation in the permanent casino.

Still, revenue from the machines will restore some of the racing luster to the track, insuring that during the summer racing meet the daily average for purses will be $200,000. For the fall meeting, beginning in late September, daily purses will average $150,000. The new purse schedule now places Louisiana Downs on a par with such tracks at Fair Grounds, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and Lone Star Park in Texas.

To which Tromba, now vice president of racing operations, marvels, "I have to pinch myself every day when I come to work."