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Downs casino nears finish line

Pat Yazzie works on a lift Friday to get the Casino at the Downs sign installed near Louisiana and Central. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)
Pat Yazzie works on a lift Friday to get the Casino at the Downs sign installed near Louisiana and Central. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)
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  • Pat Yazzie works on a lift Friday to get the Casino at the Downs sign installed near Louisiana and Central. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

  • The Downs at Albuquerque casino has a 20,000-square-foot casino floor that will open with about 700 video slot machines. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

  • In this file photo, work continues outside the new $25 million Casino at the Downs, (Marla Brose/ Journal file)

  • Crews work on a patio area at the casino that will face the racetrack at Expo New Mexico. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Compared to the cramped and noisy little grandstand casino it is replacing, the new casino taking shape at the Downs at Albuquerque is the Taj Mahal.

Compared to the sprawling tribal casinos north, south and west of Albuquerque, it’s a more modest but striking accomplishment.

“We’re doing everything we can to open July 1,” Scott Eldredge, the Casino at the Downs’ new chief operating officer, said this week amid the bustling, noisy and dusty construction still going on at the northwest corner of Central and Louisiana NE.

Clearly, he’s an optimist.

Decked out in a fluorescent orange safety vest and hardhat, Eldredge – who has worked at casinos in Las Vegas, Nev., and around New Mexico – pointed out the amenities taking shape in the 65,000-square-foot, just-over-$25-million casino.

There’s the 20,000-square-foot casino floor that will open with about 700 video slot machines. Unlike the archaic coin slots at the old casino, the new slots will be ticket-in, ticket-out, meaning you play for credits redeemable at the centrally located cashier’s cage.

Valet parking is free. There’s a gleaming 200-seat food court where patrons can order Caribou Coffee, French pastries, deli sandwiches, pizza, ice cream and other quick dishes. The food court is flanked by a small beer and wine bar.

Then things get fancy.

The appropriately named First Turn Lounge – which has a view of the first turn of the 1-mile oval track that has been a feature at the Expo New Mexico fairgrounds for decades – will feature 20 beer taps for domestic, imported, craft and microbrew beers and ales, in addition to wines and cocktails.

The lounge has an open patio where patrons can watch the horses race around the turn. But if you want to be at the finish line you’ll have to walk along what will eventually be a landscaped path to the old grandstands.

Eldredge said the grandstands will still have simulcast and live-race betting, and the old Jockey Club will still be open during racing season.

“We’ll eventually do a remodel of the front of the old grandstand facing the new casino,” he said.

The State Fair Commission approved the controversial 25-year lease for the project in January. The lease allowed the Downs to build its casino on the state-owned Expo New Mexico fairgrounds.

Only two companies – the Downs and Laguna Development Corp. – responded to the 100-page request for proposals within the required 30 days. Critics said that was too short a time period to allow for real competition.

The Downs will have 57 days of live horse racing this year – including 17 days during the New Mexico State Fair – from Aug. 2 through Nov. 4.

On the north wall of the First Turn Lounge is a small simulcast parlor, where patrons can bet on televised races, and a diminutive stage for live entertainment.

On the opposite side of the casino floor is another giant step up from the old casino – the Crown Room, an intimate, gourmet restaurant that Eldredge says will cater to high-end clients enjoying a big win or for special occasions that call for an upscale setting. Translation: It won’t be cheap, but it promises excellent fare, service and atmosphere. The Crown Room will seat about 50.

Patron safety is assured by a professional security team, state-of-the-art video monitoring, and well-lighted 850-space parking lots and walkways, Eldredge said.

The new casino is providing about 100 full-time construction jobs, and once complete it will have about 400 employees. It will be open from 9 a.m. to midnight weekdays, and from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. weekends.

Downs officials say they’ll have a grand opening in early August – just in time to enjoy some live horse racing.

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