The nation's top gaming companies are eyeing opportunities in the growing area of race track casinos, as they seek to tap a highly lucrative niche to foster growth, company officials and analysts said Friday.

The recent interest in bringing casinos to race tracks comes as traditional horse betting flags, while states look for new revenues as they face looming budget shortfalls amid the economic slowdown, analysts said.

At stake are potential millions of dollars each year in revenues from properties that are relatively cheap to build, maintain and run, analysts said.

Chuck Atwood, chief financial officer of Harrah's Entertainment Inc., said his company was studying whether consumers saw race track slot machine parlors as casinos, and would base its future moves on the results.

"The early indicator is that customers see those as casinos," Atwood said at a conference in Las Vegas this week.

Reached later for further comment, Harrah's spokesman Gary Thompson said the company is "always exploring the possibility of anything that might make economic sense, including 'racinos.' But we have nothing specific to say at this time."

But, if Wall Street is any indicator, investors clearly see race track casinos as a solid growth opportunity for gaming companies, as evidenced by the recent stock activity of mid-tier player Boyd Gaming Corp.

Since Dec. 14, the day a judge cleared a legal roadblock that had temporarily halted work on a slot machine parlor at Boyd's newly acquired Delta Downs race track in Louisiana, the company's stock has doubled from $5.06 on Dec. 13 to a Thursday close of $10.22 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Other major casino operators said they were watching the situation, though none has made any formal announcements. States where race track casinos are now legal include Louisiana, West Virginia and Delaware, while ones considering similar moves include Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Florida and New York.

HIGHLY PROFITABLE

The key factor drawing casino operators to race track slot parlors is the high profitability of so-called racinos, said Jason Ader, an analyst at Bear Stearns.

Ader said that one such facility in Charlestown, West Virginia, generates about $50 million in annual earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization for its owner, Penn National Gaming Inc.. That number is higher than annual EBITDA for the Las Vegas Hilton, he added.

"They're very profitable and investors like them because as gaming is proliferating it's in the form of gambling at race tracks."

Because the scale of such casinos is limited -- Boyd's Delta Downs casino had 1,500 slot machines when it opened on Wednesday -- the venue may be more suitable for mid-sized gaming companies like Penn, Argosy Gaming Co. and Isle of Capri Casinos Inc., Ader said.

But spokesmen from industry leaders MGM Mirage and Mandalay Resort Group said their companies are always looking at new expansion opportunities, including racinos.

The industry's other major player, Park Place Entertainment Inc., already operates a slot parlor at the Dover Downs race track in Delaware.

"MGM Mirage, by and large, is in the resort entertainment business, of which gaming is clearly the driving economic force," said MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman. "Racinos are not a market that we have focused on yet ... but I wouldn't rule it out."

Feldman said race tracks could become an interesting growth opportunity for MGM Mirage in the future, if development of additional facilities, such as hotels, restaurants and night clubs, is allowed on their land.

Mandalay Resort looked at race track opportunities in the past, but has not yet found one to its liking, said spokesman John Marz.

"We look at all viable opportunities," Marz said. "Race tracks are obviously one that we would consider, but it would have to be the right type of situation for us. It would have to be in a really good area of the country that we aren't servicing right now."