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$30M Downs racino set to open Thursday

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Casino, restaurant, bars to debut; horse racing starts Aug. 2

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

The new $30 million Downs Racetrack and Casino – with almost 700 slot machines, a fine dining restaurant, a bar and a food court – is set to open Thursday morning.

This week’s soft opening is for the casino, restaurant and bars, while the three-month horse racing cycle will kick off Aug. 2, with a grand opening to be held then, said Downs Chief Operating Officer Scott Eldredge.

The new racino, near Louisiana and Central NE, replaces the previous facility that consisted of a racetrack flanked by a grandstand and an antiquated 300-slot machine casino.

The new Casino at the Fairgrounds will open Thursday.  Pictured is a video poker table. Albuquerque, New Mexico.  (Albuquerque Journal)

The new Casino at the Fairgrounds will open Thursday. Pictured is a video poker table.
Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Albuquerque Journal)

This week, the new 65,000-square-foot casino, called Casino at the Downs, was nearing completion, with slot machines being readied and installed.

Dozens of construction workers, a port-a-potty and an on-site construction trailer didn’t exactly scream “Come play here,” but Eldredge said the gaming facility, the only one within city limits, will be ready Thursday with 698 slot machines, most of them video, with 20 or 30 brand-new themes that no one else in New Mexico has.

“We now have a completely automated floor that brings us up to par with all of our competitors,” he said.

The slot machines, which cost between one cent and $5 to play, aren’t the only games: There are also seven electronic tables that offer several versions of blackjack, as well as craps, roulette, and three-card poker, Eldredge said.

Tribal gaming on New Mexico’s pueblos and reservations is allowed to have live table games with human dealers. Not so at racinos, hence the virtual dealers.

The Downs Racetrack and Casino is being funded by three private owners – Louisiana businessmen Bill Windham and John S. Turner and local businessman Paul Blanchard – as well as bank financing.

The racino is also debuting a 48-seat, high-end, reservation-only restaurant called the Crown Room. Fresh stone crab will be flown in, and other dishes, most of which cost between $30 and $50, will include grilled halibut and lobster, scallops and shrimp cioppino, with dessert options such as cherries jubilee and bananas Foster to be flambéed at the table. The restaurant will start off being open Wednesday through Saturday. “If volume dictates, we’ll open every day of the week,” Eldredge said.

There is also a food court with a coffee bar, pizza place, deli and ice cream area, which earlier this week was being cleaned, mopped and stocked.

“Food is an amenity to the gambling,” said the Downs’ director of food and beverage, Abel Avila, previously the executive chef of Buffalo Thunder, a resort hotel and casino outside Santa Fe. “We want them to eat here, give them great food, great value, to keep them in the casino longer.”

Another feature aimed at keeping people in the casino longer is a player loyalty program, similar to those at grocery and drug stores that provide motivation to come back through discounts and bonuses.

In this case, those who join the Triple Crown Player’s Club get a card that’s loaded with $25 for gambling, according to marketing director Brian Roybal.

The area for watching live horse racing has also been transformed. In the past, the only option was a glass-enclosed building located on an outer edge of the racetrack.

People can still watch live horse racing in the first-floor grandstand and the second-floor jockey club. Now, however, there’s a new bar, the First Turn Lounge, which will feature its own microbrew, Post Time Ale, positioned near where horses will round their first turn, along with a patio that also gives visual access to the track.

Thirty percent of the Downs’ gaming revenue will fund prize money for the horse races, according to Eldredge.

Horses and jockeys will come in from different parts of the country, mostly Texas, Arizona, Utah and Oklahoma for the season, before going to another stop on their circuit, similar to a traveling circus, he said.

When the horse racing begins, another 300 additional jobs will open up and the Downs will be looking for full-time, part-time and seasonal food and beverage workers, security guards and stable hands, he said.

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