Remember Louisiana Downs in its glory days? A revival is underway

By TONY TAGLAVORE, Journal Sports

A horse owner, as well as a fan of thoroughbred racing, Mike Whitler loved going to Louisiana Downs when it was the place to be.

But there was one drawback to the track’s popularity.

“Having a difficult time finding your car after the races, because there were so many cars in the parking lot,” he recalls.

From when the track opened in 1974, through the 1980s, crowds of 15,000-20,000 would often click through the turnstiles. Racing form in hand and cash in pocket, the rich, poor, and in-between, occupied the high-rising grandstand between I-20 and Highway 80 on the eastern edge of Bossier City. On holidays, crowds could even be larger. From the I-20 off-ramp, you were darn near blinded by sun flares reflecting off the top of cars and trucks.

Truth be told, Whitler would once again love to have trouble finding his car. He believes Kevin Preston just might eventually make it happen.

Preston is the President of Rubico Acquisition Corporation. That’s the company which, last November, bought Louisiana Downs Casino and Racetrack from Caesars Entertainment and VICI Properties for $22 million.

You can already see changes at the 48-year-old racetrack. It’s been power washed. There’s fresh paint inside, a different color paint on the tote board outside (bright white has replaced faded green), and there is more colorful landscaping.

Whitler, who is a state inspector for the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders and Louisiana Quarter Horse Breeders, has taken notice.

“Kevin’s done more in two-and-a-half months than the previous owners (combined) did in 25 years.”

But while aesthetics are pleasing, they don’t do much to help the quality of racing. Preston is working on that, also.

“I think the biggest thing is, we got together with the horsemen and the racing side, and some of the leaders-to-be, and said, ‘Listen, we want to improve this. We want to increase purses. We may not be able to get it back to its heyday in the ‘80s, but we sure want to give it a shot.’ ”

Why is purse money so important? Plain and simple, owners take their horses where they can compete for the most dollars. Larger purses mean more horses in each race, which experienced bettors like. The better the horses, the better the competition. The better the competition, the more people want to watch—and bet.

“The most important aspect of the racing side is getting the purses up,” Preston said. “We toured the area, so we can implement additional OTB’s (Off-Track Betting) around the area so we can get the purses up from that. We’re going to implement the HHR (Historical Horse Racing) machines, which recently got passed. Obviously, the sports book will increase the purses. We will be active with the sports book right before March Madness.”

The 51-year-old Chicago native has spent most of his career in the gaming industry. However, Preston wants you to know that doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in the racing side of Louisiana Downs.

“Growing up on the south side of Chicago, we would go to the races at all the tracks that were in and around Chicago. Now, being in Kentucky, I am an hour away from Churchill (Downs). While I’m a casino guy, I really love and enjoy the racing side as well.”

Louisiana Downs’ Quarter Horse meet ends April 6. Thoroughbred season starts May 7 (Kentucky Derby Day). Preston believes if you’ve been at LaDowns before, you may not recognize the track.

“It’s going to look completely different,” Preston said. “From the color-scheme, to the paint, to the signage, we’re going to be doing outside shows between races, fireworks. Once someone gets there, they’re going to feel the difference — that these guys are really serious about wanting to bring this thing back to life.”

There are also plans to add restaurants.

“Right now, there’s just a Fuddruckers there, and it’s been there for 10 years,” Preston said. “I mean, how many times can you have hamburgers?”

Whitler, whose most successful horse was Political Whit ($347,190 in career earnings) in the mid-to-late ‘90s, now owns two horses. One, a four-year-old (Simple Sunday, named after the Simple Church), has been racing at Delta Downs near Lake Charles. She will be shipped to Louisiana Downs in time for opening day.

“But I’m 10 times more excited about the possibilities, now that Kevin is at the helm.”

Maybe eventually, Whitler will have to again pay attention to where he parks his car.

Photo by ANN SWITALSKI for Lou Hodges Photography