Officials: Louisiana Ripe to Become <i>The</i> Racing State

Government and corporate officials in Louisiana are on a mission to make horse racing a key component of the state's marketing and tourism efforts, and at least one racetrack official believes cooperation among industry players could make Louisiana the preeminent racing state in the country.

Since the first racino opened at Delta Downs Racetrack & Casino in 2002, more than $40 million has been generated for purses and breed development for Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing. Racinos at Harrah's Louisiana Downs and Evangeline Downs Racetrack & Casino opened in 2003, and Fair Grounds is in line for slot machines, perhaps by the end of this year.

The growth in Louisiana hasn't gone unnoticed, particularly by other racing and breeding states that have failed to muster legislative support for racetrack gaming. Among them are Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, and Texas, traditionally considered stronger racing states than Louisiana. Clearly, times are changing.

Delta Downs just wrapped up its Thoroughbred meet with a 33% increase in total handle. Evangeline Downs, the first racino built from the ground up, will move live racing operations next year to a neighboring parish where its slot-machine casino is already operating. For the meet that began April 1, purses increased 100%, and the entry box has been overflowing.

"I'd like to see all the associations in Louisiana develop plans to promote racing," said Keith Smith, chief operating officer of Boyd Gaming, which owns Delta Downs. "With four racetracks, I can't imagine another state that has horse racing that should be stronger or as well known than this state."

Smith was among the speakers April 2 during the Joint Conference of Racing Regulators in New Orleans. State government officials who apparently have big plans for horse racing joined Smith in making comments that could have officials in some other racing states a bit uncomfortable as the competition for horses increases and other breeding programs prosper.

"We're committed to really finding a way to improve the value of racing in Louisiana," Lieutenant Gov. Mitch Landrieu said. "There are 45,000 people (with jobs) in racing. Louisiana is far and away better than its reputation is today. We're going to image the state around it. (Horse racing) is going to be a part of what Louisiana is."

"Gaming and the marriage of it with Fair Grounds and other tracks is just a thing to make an industry grow even better is the coming years," state Attorney General Charles Foti Jr. said. "We also feel like the (backstretch) of the track, with these valuable horses, should be protected. We'll do everything to work with you to protect the public interest."

Smith said there are four areas of focus: product, cooperation, trust, and taxes. He said the slots have helped the product and make it attractive for export, but to grow, there needs to be cooperation and trust between racetracks, horsemen, regulators, and the state.

Smith called horse racing a "tradition-bound business" that must change. He noted that when Delta Downs wanted to advance $2 million to the purse account before slots were operational, horsemen viewed Boyd Gaming with skepticism.

"We thought it would be well received, but it was difficult to get approved," Smith said. "Advancing the money was a difficult process that took a change in the law. When the suggestion was made, there was a certain amount of distrust as to why we would do that."

Anthony Sanfilippo, president of the central division for Harrah's Entertainment, said Louisiana Downs expects to have its expanded casino with 1,400 slot machines ready by May. He said the company is committed to live racing and investing money in the facility, in part because of a stable tax environment that gives racetracks and horsemen a much larger share of slots proceeds than the state receives.

"We think that in the next 10 to 20 years, this facility can grow," Sanfilippo said. "We have a great interest in adding improvements to the facility. We've also gone from 82 racing days last year to 122 racing days this year. We've found that by having live racing at the facility, our facility is more profitable. We'll work to add even more racing days where it has the blessing of the racing commission."

Bob Wright, the new chairman of the Louisiana State Racing Commission, said he'd like to see a cooperative effort among tracks and horsemen to promote live attendance at tracks. There already is some movement in that direction.

A top official at Delta Downs has floated the idea of each of the four tracks in the state having a $1-million race, while the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders' Association is advocating one state-bred championship day per track, with a bonus scheme tied to all four events. (Delta Downs last year offered the $1-million Delta Jackpot for 2-year-olds.)