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At long last, the slot-machine casino is about to open at Fort Erie Race Track.

If everything goes as planned, the 1,200-machine facility will open Sept. 9 for a "VIP" reception, complete with wagering. The general public will be admitted Sept. 11.

Those are the tentative dates disclosed to horsemen and employees Tuesday, although no official opening day has yet been confirmed by the provincial government's Ontario Lottery Corp., which operates the facility.

The opening follows more than three years of stop-and-start planning that began about May 1996, when officials of the financially strapped thoroughbred track first sought permission to install what were then called "video lottery terminals."

Construction actually began after an Ontario program to allow slots at racetracks was passed in June 1998, a month after the track postponed the start of its live racing season as it teetered on the brink of insolvency.

Today, the track has a new look -- including new red and yellow signs and billboards ("Fort Erie Racetrack and SLOTS") and a new green roof complete with cupolas, pennants and a huge spire reminiscent of Kentucky's Churchill Downs.

And its people have a renewed optimism about the future of the 102-year-old facility.

Officially, Ontario Lottery spokesman Jim Cronin will confirm only that the facility will open "in the next few weeks."

Cronin, director of media relations, said he couldn't give a specific date because there is "a lot of regulatory stuff" -- including approval of a liquor license -- that must be completed before opening day.

Cronin, based at the Ontario Lottery headquarters in Sault Ste. Marie, is the man to whom track officials refer all casino-related questions. Since the exterior construction of the casino -- located in sections of the former grandstand building -- was completed in late July, Ontario Lottery Corp. has taken possession and declared the area off-limits to everyone but licensed construction workers and some employees.

Cronin said the Fort Erie casino -- the first part of a $30 million modernization program that will continue over the winter after the 1999 live racing season ends -- will employ about 300 people and be open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. He said hours could be changed depending on "how the market goes."

He said the 75,000 square-foot casino will open with an "invitation-only preview night," followed by a shutdown of a day or two to iron out problems that may have appeared during the first session. Then the facility will be open to the public.

Fort Erie horsemen have been asked to provide horses for a special six-race card to be run at 3 p.m. Sept. 9 in conjunction with the tentative opening date. If there are no major problems, the general public will be allowed in two days later.

While the exact layout of the new facility remains a mystery, patrons can get a sneak preview by visiting Ontario Lottery's newest casino at Mohawk Raceway, about 90 miles to the north in Campbellville, Ont.

Opened on Aug. 10, the Campbellville casino features 750 slot machines (taking tokens in denominations of 25 and 50 cents plus $1, $2 and $5) arrayed in a plushly carpeted, well-lighted and ventilated area that is "like a mini-Las Vegas," according to Glenn Crouter, director of media communications for the Ontario Jockey Club.

"We are doing things top-notch," Cronin said. "These are state-of-the-art facilities with very high standards."

The Ontario Jockey Club, in the midst of changing its name to "Woodbine Corp.," owns Mohawk and the Woodbine track in Toronto, where a 1,700-machine casino is expected to open by the year's end. Two years ago, Ontario Lottery sold the Fort Erie track to Nordic Gaming Corp., a group headed by the British-based Ladbroke's bookmaking firm.

Most of the casinos in the Ontario Lottery system (which does not include the province-owned Casino Niagara in Niagara Falls, Ont.) have been established under legislation designed to assist the horse-racing industry, which has seen slots turn financially troubled tracks around in Delaware, West Virginia and Iowa.

Besides Mohawk, Ontario Lottery casinos are already up and running at Windsor Raceway, near Detroit, and Hiawatha Park in Sarnia. Besides Fort Erie and Woodbine, plans call for others at Flamboro Downs, near Hamilton, and tracks at London, Peterborough, Ottawa and Sudbury.

The casinos are designed to help both thoroughbred and harness racing -- which accounts for about 40,000 jobs in the province -- in several ways. Not only will the tracks and the horsemen's purse accounts split 20 percent of the revenues, but the casinos are designed to expose parimutuel racing to slot players, who historically are oblivious to the sport.

At Mohawk, for instance, horse races are televised throughout the slots area, and slots patrons headed for the cafeteria must pass through the plush off-track betting area known as the "Race Book."

"I think this is going to be a godsend for racing," said Tom Cosgrove, Fort Erie's director of racing. "It's been behind in the last two decades in the purse structure, and that's going to be rectified in short order with the slots."

At Fort Erie, anticipation of slot-machine revenue has prompted a 50 percent increase in purses (to about $75,000 a day), at the start of the 1999 season.

Fort Erie horsemen recently requested another 20 percent increase in September and a 30 percent jump at the start of next season, probably in May. This year's 100-day live season runs through Oct. 24. Currently, there is racing Saturday through Tuesday at 1:05 p.m.

"We are eagerly anticipating the opening of the slot facility,' said Nick Gonzalez, a Fort Erie trainer and vice president of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

"We want to give owners and trainers an incentive, not only to keep the horses they have but to go out and get more," Gonzalez said.

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