11/05/2002 12:00AM

Daily purses quadruple thanks to slots money

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The bullring has gone big time.

Delta Downs, up until now a minor track in Vinton, La., plans to stage a $500,000 stakes for 2-year-olds and offer a record $160,000 a day in purses during its 80-night meet that opens Thursday and runs through March 23.

Delta's racing program has been overhauled courtesy of slot machines. The track was the first in Louisiana to install them, and since its casino opened Feb. 13, more than a million people have visited Delta.

Revenues from the machines through September had reached $84 million.

Those funds, 15 percent of which are set aside for purses, have helped revitalize Delta. Two years ago, daily purses for a mixed meet featuring Thoroughbreds averaged $40,000. For the new meet, they have quadrupled.

"We're ahead of our plan for the first year," said Jack Bernsmeier, a senior vice president for Boyd Gaming, the Las Vegas-based casino firm that bought Delta for more than $100 million in May 2001.

Bernsmeier projects that over a 12-month period the track's slots will raise $15 million for the purse fund at Delta.

Delta Downs is the first racing venture for Boyd, which also owns 12 casino properties around the country, including the Stardust Resort and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

The company has made a number of improvements to Delta Downs for this meet. On the backstretch, two new 60-stall barns have been built. The company has also constructed a new jockeys' room, remodeled the paddock and upgraded the track lighting system.

Longterm, plans call for building a hotel on the 240-acre track property. And, if the racing business flourishes, Bernsmeier said the existing six-furlong oval could be converted to a mile. A turf course is another possibility

Right now, however, Bernsmeier said the immediate goal is getting Delta's races into more simulcast outlets. In order to do that, the track created the $500,000 Delta Jackpot, a one-mile race for 2-year-olds on Dec. 21 that will be one of the richest races for juveniles in the country.

"We wanted to have a bigger race to create some awareness, and general interest in Delta," said Bernsmeier.

The Delta Jackpot anchors a 36-race stakes schedule worth $2.5 million. The stakes program, which formerly consisted of just a handful of races, gets under way Thursday with the $40,000 Racino Inaugural.

The five-furlong race drew eight, including shippers Gracie's Dancer and Front Nine, and local favorites Dr. Lewis and Two Punch Sonny.