NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ The days when horse racing was the only game in Louisiana are long gone. Now the challenge is outright survival.

To compete with casino gambling, the tracks want the device that's the heart and soul of their competitors: the slot machine.

``They are going to be the survival and the savior of this business,'' said Tom Early, secretary-treasurer of the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders Association.

On Oct. 18, voters in the tracks' home parishes will decide whether to allow slot machines at three of Louisiana's four ovals. Tracks approved for the machines have buildings with 15,000 square feet of gambling space, enough to house 700 to 800 machines.

The vote comes a week after one of the nation's major race tracks, Arlington International in Chicago, holds its final meet. Since it reopened in 1989 after a devastating fire, the track has lost $60 million to $70 million and blames the rise of riverboat gambling.

``I think that (Arlington's closure) provided a dose of reality to the nay-sayers out there,'' said Ray Tromba, general manager of Louisiana Downs at Bossier City.

Gambling opponents say the slots will turn race tracks into land casinos and further fuel the expansion of gambling begun in the early 1990s with a state lottery, casinos and video poker.

``What's going to happen in two or three years is that the owners are going to come back and say the slots don't have vet bills and the jockeys don't call in sick,'' said Walter Abbott, who represents the National Coalition Against Gambling.

Two of the tracks asking for slot machines, Delta Downs at Vinton and Louisiana Downs, each face direct competition from four riverboats. A giant land casino at Kinder has further hammered Delta Downs.

Evangeline Downs' referendum is threefold: it turns its back on its longtime home of Lafayette Parish and asks voters in St. Landry Parish to approve its move to a site a few miles across the parish border, plus allow slot machines and off-track betting.

Three Indian reservation casinos are within 60 miles of the track and two riverboat casinos are an hour's drive away in Baton Rouge.

If the referendum is approved, Evangeline Downs will build an all-new $24 million facility that could see purses rise from $60,000 per day to $150,000 per day, said Charles Ashy, the track's general manager.

Ashy also says the track eventually plans to have a hotel, convention center, a water-recreational park and a golf course _ items typically included in casino resorts.

Tromba estimates slot machines will boost average daily purses at Louisiana Downs from $135,000 per day to as high as $225,000 per day. Jim Grundy, vice president of operations at Delta Downs, says his track could see an increase from $30,000 per day to as much as $120,000 per day.

Fifteen percent of the net winning proceeds from the slots would go to racing purses. Of that amount, 70 percent would go to thoroughbred races, while 30 percent would go for quarterhorse racing.

``There will be a snowball effect. If you can have purses of $150,000 a day, you're going to get a lot of people back into racing, such as doctors, lawyers and oilmen,'' Ashy said. ``That will help the breeding industry.''

The New Orleans Fair Grounds was not included in the legislative bill that authorized the local slot-machine votes. The Fair Grounds is financing a $30 million rebuilding of its fire-ravaged clubhouse through a special exemption on its video poker taxes.

All tracks have video poker machines, but backers say the slots will be more appealing to a wider array of gamblers and will draw more money.

Tony Chamblin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which represents horse and greyhound racing regulatory agencies, said that in addition to Louisiana, tracks in Delaware, Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island and West Viriginia have slot machines, video poker or video lottery machines to supplement their racing.

In addition, Hollywood Park in California has a card club.

``Racing is going to be in very serious trouble if it doesn't get help in areas where it had to compete with casinos,'' said Chamblin. ``There might not be horse racing at all if our tracks don't find ways to compete.''

Tromba estimates slot machines will boost average daily purses at Louisiana Downs from $135,000 per day to as high as $225,000 per day. Grundy said Delta Downs could see an increase from $30,000 per day to as much as $120,000 per day.