By AP Business Writer
updated 4/17/2006 6:44:07 PM ET 2006-04-17T22:44:07

The bidding war for casino operator Aztar Corp. heated up as a fourth suitor offered to top three other offers with a cash bid of $1.7 billion, Aztar said Monday.

The unsolicited bid of $47 per share from Wimar Tahoe Corp., also known as Columbia Entertainment, "is, or is reasonably likely to result in, a superior proposal" to an agreement to be bought by Pinnacle Entertainment Inc. on March 13 for $38 a share, Aztar said.

Wimar Tahoe is a subsidiary of Fort Mitchell, Ky.-based Columbia Sussex Corp.

The offer for about $1.7 billion in cash also was higher than two competing cash proposals from a Los Angeles real estate investment fund, Colony Capital LLC, for $41 a share and from Las Vegas-based Ameristar Casinos Inc., which raised its bid Friday by $1 to $43 per share.

Aztar shares rose $1.55, or 3.5 percent, to close at $46.35 Monday on the New York Stock Exchange.

Bidding for Phoenix-based Aztar has been feverish because it owns one of the last great redevelopment opportunities on the Las Vegas Strip _ a 34-acre plot on a busy crossroads that now hosts the aging Tropicana resort. Aztar also owns the Tropicana hotel casino in Atlantic City, N.J., and other casinos in Missouri and Indiana.

Aztar said it had not decided which offer to accept.

The latest offer, including the assumption of some $723 million in debt, would value Aztar at about $2.4 billion.

"Aztar's board is not making any recommendation at this time with respect to any such proposal or offer, and there is no assurance that the Aztar board will approve any such transaction or that a transaction will result," it said in a statement.

Analyst Celeste Brown of Morgan Stanley Research said the first offer from Pinnacle for $38 was more than fair.

"With now four interested parties, the eventual result is anybody's guess," she said in a research note.

JP Morgan analyst Mario Kontomerkos suggested the bidding could continue higher.

If a bidder other than Las Vegas-based Pinnacle wins, it would have to pay up to $55 million to Pinnacle in breakup fees.

Columbia Sussex, a privately held real estate company, operates 83 hotels and casinos in North America, including the Caesars Tahoe Casino, the Belle of Baton Rouge and the Westin Las Vegas Casuarina Casino, according to the company's Web site.

A spokeswoman for Columbia Sussex said the company had no comment.

___

On the Net:

Aztar Corp.: http://www.aztar.com

Columbia Sussex Corp.: http://www.columbiasussex.com

Ameristar Casinos Inc.: http://www.ameristarcasinos.com

Colony Capital LLC: http://www.colonyinc.com

Pinnacle Entertainment Inc.: http://www.pnkinc.com

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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