Friday, June 29, 2018 | 10:36 a.m.
INDIANAPOLIS — State regulators approved the sale of four Indiana casinos to new operators Thursday, including Ameristar East Chicago to Penn National Gaming and the Indianapolis-area horse track casinos to the parent company of Hammond's Horseshoe Casino.
The Indiana Gaming Commission also authorized Boyd Gaming, which owns Blue Chip Casino, to acquire Belterra Casino in Florence along the Ohio River, and to locate eight video poker machines in a pavilion bar leading into its Michigan City boat.
The approvals mark the beginning of a new era in Indiana gaming where just a few companies control nearly all the state's casinos.
Caesars Entertainment Corp. is the dominant player with four properties: Hammond Horseshoe; Horseshoe Southern Indiana; Hoosier Park Racing and Casino; and Indiana Grand Racing and Casino.
Penn National will operate Ameristar, where no changes are planned, and Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg.
It's selling Belterra to Boyd Gaming since Indiana law imposes a two casino limit for a single license holder, though racinos are not counted against that cap.
Majestic Star also operates two legally distinct casinos in Gary under one brand name.
The only casinos whose operators have just one Indiana location are in Evansville, French Lick and Rising Sun, as well as the tribal casino in South Bend.
When Caesars closes in July on its $1.7 billion purchase of the two racinos, it will own facilities that currently produce more than 54 percent of the state's annual gaming tax revenue -- a share that could increase in the years ahead.
Caesars CEO Mark Frissora said he expects Caesars patrons in Indiana and other states will increase their visits and wagering at the two racinos once they can earn rewards points good for food, lodging and entertainment discounts at any Caesars property.
"Indiana will be our largest market after this acquisition, besides Nevada," Frissora said.
However, that did not prevent the commission from imposing a near-record $1 million penalty on Caesars prior to approving its racino acquisitions.
According to settlement documents, Caesars personnel attempted to intimidate Sara Gonso Tait, the commission's executive director, into waiving the statutory $50 million racino transfer fee by threatening to cancel Caesars' plans to replace its southern Indiana riverboat with an $85 million land-based facility.
"The overall impact of these communications could serve to undermine the public's confidence and trust in the integrity of the gaming industry in Indiana," Tait said. "This ($1 million) agreement is intended to correct any public perception that such conduct will be tolerated."
Caesars accepted responsibility for the communications and pledged to improve its future interactions with regulators.