Fair Grounds Slots May Have to Wait Until 2008

Churchill Downs Inc. officials are encouraged by a rebound of their Louisiana operations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but it appears slot machines at Fair Grounds won't be operating until mid-2008 at the earliest.

Fair Grounds, heavily damaged by the hurricane last summer, is scheduled to reopen for live racing in late November. The New Orleans facility has a new roof, repaired barns, and underwent mold mitigation. Work continues on the interior of the grandstand/clubhouse, though two floors of the clubhouse are ready for use.

CDI president and chief executive officer Tom Meeker, during a May 10 conference call on the company's first-quarter earnings, said even though the entire facility may not be ready by Thanksgiving Day, he expects the 2006-07 meet to be a success.

As for the timetable for implementation of slot-machine gaming, he said: "Clearly, it won't be this year. We're clearly a year behind in our schedule (because of the hurricane damage). We're going to go through a meet down there, and there are still a number of questions endemic to that community.

"I would say the earliest we could start construction (of a slots parlor) is mid-year of next year, and for implementation, there's a nine-month build-out."

Meeker said the Louisiana legislature is considering bills that would aid Fair Grounds and its planned slots operation, as well as horsemen. Meanwhile, the company's off-track betting and video poker outlets in the New Orleans area are performing quite well, officials said.

With eight OTB parlors operating as of April 30, the video poker machines were 78% ahead of last year's total net win, and pari-mutuel handle was up 36% compared with a year ago. CDI obtained the OTB/gaming facilities when it bought Fair Grounds.

With Fair Grounds unable to host its 2005-06 meet, some of the dates were moved to Harrah's Louisiana Downs in Bossier City. Though daily average purses were a state record of $388,126--and almost 45% higher than they were the previous meet at Fair Grounds--Meeker said it's too soon to confirm published reports that 2006-07 meet purses will average at least $300,000.

"We'll be working on (the purse structure)," said Meeker, who noted improved business in the OTB and video poker sectors should help. "The purse structure down there should be pretty good. I'd suggest it will be fairly good--better than it used to be--but we still have to wait."