Delta Meet Approved; First Part at Evangeline

The Louisiana State Racing Commission, after a Nov. 28 tour of Delta Downs Racetrack & Casino, gave the Vinton facility the go-ahead to reopen for live Thoroughbred racing Jan. 18.

Hurricane Rita hit Delta Downs in late September. Portions of the clubhouse were damaged, as were 16 of 20 barns on the backstretch. The track was forced to postpone its live meet, which would have begun Oct. 21.

In the meantime, the first part of the Delta Downs meet will be held at Evangeline Downs Racetrack & Casino beginning Dec. 1. Evangeline, located about 2 1/2 hours away in Opelousas, wasn't impacted by any of the hurricanes that hit Louisiana.

"The bottom line is we want to do what is best for racing in the state of Louisiana," Evangeline executive director of racing David Yount said before the commission meeting. "This is an industry we are trying to save. Fifty percent of our resources have been eliminated due to two hurricanes. It has devastated our industry, which affects hundreds of people. It's a multimillion-dollar industry for the state.

"All we are trying to do is help salvage through these emergency times. We are opening our doors like any Good Samaritan would to be able to continue our businesses as normal as we can."

About $12.2 million in purse money has been transferred to Evangeline. The racing commission instructed the track to return the balance to Delta Downs when it's ready to resume live racing.

Delta Downs general manager Jack Bernsmeier said the racing facilities would be ready by Jan. 18. Delta Downs requested 40 days of Thoroughbred racing four days a week through March 25. The track expects to have 914 stalls ready by the opening date.

"All of the track lighting, all the railing, and all of the surfacing of the track will be in," Bernsmeier said. Repairs should be completed on the grandstand, hotel rooms, off-track betting area, jockeys' quarters, and veterinarian offices, he said.

Half of the track's 1,100 employees have been displaced, but Bernsmeier said he hopes to get everyone back once all of the repairs are done at Delta Downs. "We as a company (Boyd Gaming) are willing to do whatever it takes to makes those dates," he told the racing commission.

Before the plan was approved, the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association objected. President Sean Alfortish said his group has concerns Delta Downs may not be ready by Jan. 18, and he requested a deferral of the Thoroughbred meet approval until Delta Downs can guarantee that it will open for racing on time.

"Right now, we don't think the plan (to reopen) is adequate enough to provide the best interests for the horsemen," Alfortish said.

Commission chairman Bob Wright disagreed. "I think it adds stability to the horse people if we decide today that something should happen in mid-January rather than wait until Jan. 1," he said.

The commission approved the schedule with the stipulation Delta Downs officials give a status report to the commission Dec. 19. The racing commission, Jockeys' Guild, and others will conduct a surface inspection of the Delta Downs track on the report date.

Commission attorney Paul Bonin said if Delta Downs can't open by Jan. 18, it would be subject to a $5,000-per-day fine for each lost day of racing.

Fair Grounds, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., moved its 2005-06 meet to Louisiana Downs in Bossier City because of damage from Hurricane Katrina. Fair Grounds officials told the commission indicated live racing could return to New Orleans next Thanksgiving.

Delta Downs closed Sept. 22, two days before Hurricane Rita struck. The track's slot-machine parlor and other amenities reopened Nov. 3. The Louisiana State Police, which released a report on the impact the two hurricanes have had on the state's gaming industry, said the slots parlor at Delta Downs lost $15.9 million in revenue and $2.4 million in franchise fees.

"We are little bit off (in revenue) from where we were before the storm, but we have had the casino up and running for about three weeks," Bernsmeier said. "That part is good. We have a little more than half of the hotel rooms back open, and we are close to getting the rest of it open."

The Delta Downs slots parlor is one of the biggest moneymakers for its owner, Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming, according to financial reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.