High Stakes Video Poker

by Mary Tutwiler

Off-track betting goes to a special election vote in Acadia Parish.

When Acadia Parish voters pull the lever this Saturday, Jan. 15, they will be wagering whether the establishment of a hotly contested off-track betting parlor in Rayne will bring economic benefits to the rural parish.

Proponents of the special election vote claim opening an OTB in Rayne will offer Acadia Parish's horse racing fans a convenient location to bet. Opponents fear the OTB, which comes with a license to operate an unlimited battery of video poker machines, will edge out existing casinos located in truck stops, restaurants, hotels, motels and bars.

Truck stop casino owner Roland Boudreaux, whose Frog City Travel Plaza borders Interstate 10 within the Rayne city limits, says that the state allows off-track betting facilities to operate as many video poker machines as they want, a privilege not shared by other businesses.

Boudreaux contends that there are no new video poker customers in Acadia Parish. "In order to derive business the OTB will have to take customers from existing businesses," he says. "Video poker is not as popular as it used to be ' it's reached saturation."

There are 400 video poker machines in Acadia Parish, down from 460 last year, housed in eight truck stop casinos along I-10 and in smaller bars and restaurants throughout the parish. Because of the limit on video poker machines per business ' three machines in most bars and restaurants, up to 50 at a truck stop casino ' overflow customers fan out to machines at nearby businesses, spreading the gambling dollars throughout the parish. But with the ability to add unlimited video poker machines, Boudreaux argues that the off-track betting parlor can simply add machines if necessary to prevent customers from taking their business elsewhere.

Of the revenues from the OTB, 22.5 percent are collected by the state, one quarter of which is returned to the parish. Twenty percent goes toward racing purses, and the owners of the track pocket the remaining 57.5 percent. Since Iowa-based Peninsula Gaming Partners is the parent company of the Evangeline Downs Racino, which will own and operate the OTB, Boudreaux cites those dollars going out of state as another reason to defeat the measure.

Former Lafayette state Sen. Allen Bares, who is the consultant and attorney for Evangeline Downs, says the OTB parlor will bring between 20 and 50 full time jobs into the city of Rayne. The OTB will pay taxes on the amount of money wagered to Acadia Parish and the city of Rayne ' more revenue to the local economy than any truck stop, Bares says. He adds that the real benefit of OTBs is the increase in revenue they bring to Louisiana's racing industry.

The racing industry has a $1.6 billion impact on Louisiana's economy, according to Bares. Twenty-three percent of the amount of money wagered at OTBs goes to area horsemen in the form of purses and breeder's awards. "The more money that goes into the purses, the better the horses, better races, and the more money bet," Bares says. "It means improvement for owners, trainers, breeders and farmers."

Bares adds that Evangeline Downs is aggressively looking to expand its OTB operations. Currently, there is one under construction in Henderson, while a location is being scouted in Cade, both in St. Martin Parish. Eunice is also being explored as a possible site for an OTB.

Louisiana allows two OTBs per parish within a 55-mile radius of the racetrack. Each parish must vote to allow off-track betting, as each did with video poker. While a parish need not allow video poker in order to license an off-track betting parlor ' Iberia Parish has an OTB but outlawed video poker ' video poker machines multiply the percentage of revenues made in an OTB.

St. Martin Parish voted to allow OTBs in the late 1980s, after the bill, introduced by Bares when he was in the Senate, was passed in the Legislature. On Nov. 9, after securing a site, Evangeline Downs proposed the Rayne OTB parlor to the Acadia Parish Police Jury, which subsequently voted 6-2 to put off-track betting on the ballot. The racetrack is subsidizing the special election on Jan. 15.

Boudreaux's concerns extend beyond the Rayne OTB. Once Evangeline Downs secures the Rayne location, Boudreaux feels sure they will license a second one, probably in Crowley. "The race track is owned by a gaming company," says Boudreaux. "Their business is [video poker] casinos, slots. If all they were interested in is the horsemen and an off-track betting parlor, there would be no opposition. It's the casino they really want ' that's how they make their money."