by Hector San MiguelA $50-million expansion of the Delta Downs Racetrack & Casino is well under way with completion expected by the end of 2004. The project includes a hotel and a bigger parlor for slot machines.Gary Sawina, assistant general manager at the Vinton, La., track, said the project is being done in three phases, all simultaneously. "We are almost done with what we call phase one," he said. "This will be 22,000 additional square feet with about 10,000 of that being new casino space. Our customers were asking for wider aisles and more comfort for the gaming experience. It will be a nice addition for us."Legislation passed last year allows the track to have wider aisles in its slots parlor. The new regulations allowed Delta Downs to reconfigure its facility.Sawina said Delta Downs plans to make 85% of its slot machines "coinless," and would instead use "ticket in/ticket out" technology.The expansion will feature a 10,000-square-foot entertainment complex, a 135-seat food court, 120-seat entertainment lounge, renovated buffet with a private dining area, a larger casino cage with 15 windows, a new off-track betting with upgraded video displays, and a VIP betting lounge.The hotel will offer 203 rooms, including 33 suites. The back of the hotel will face the track so patrons can watch the races from their hotel rooms.Delta Downs used several focus groups to ask its patrons what they wanted to see at the track. Among the top requests was a hotel. Currently, the track has to use blocks of hotel rooms in nearby Sulphur, La., and Orange, Texas, for its customers. The hotel, set for the third phase of the project, will cost about $33.5 million.While work concentrated on the gaming facility and hotel, Sawina said Boyd Gaming, owner of the track, has plans on the racing side as well. Delta Downs has already spent about $3 million the last two years for new barns, new jockeys' quarters, and upgrades on the backstretch."We have quite a few other exciting things happening in that area," Sawina said. "One of our long-term goals is to look at making this a mile track potentially with two turns. That is something we are looking at now, but it's probably a year or two down the road. Our problem is that with our racing schedule getting tighter as it is, we estimate it would take four to six months to demolish the track and build a new one."The racing surface at Delta Downs is three-quarters of a mile in circumference, with chutes for five-furlong and 1 1/16-mile races.Since Boyd Gaming opened the slots parlor at Delta Downs in February 2002, the track has generated more than $200 million in gross revenue and more than $30 million in purses.