01/28/2004 12:00AM

Delhomme has roots in racing

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Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Jake Delhomme, the Carolina Panthers quarterback, dabbles in horse ownership, and his father, Jerry, trains a small stable in Louisiana.

NEW ORLEANS - A day before the Carolina Panthers were to play the St. Louis Rams in a National Football Conference playoff game, Jake Delhomme, the Panthers quarterback, placed a call to his father.

What he wanted was not emotional support, not practical advice. He wanted his father, Jerry, to find a way to claim a $7,500 filly named Ruthy Red at Delta Downs the next night.

"Jake really wanted her for a broodmare," Mr. Delhomme said. "He said, 'Daddy, can you find a way to set the wheels in motion?' "

Ruthy Red won by a neck and became Jake Delhomme's horse the night he led the Panthers past the Rams.

For the Panthers' Super Bowl quarterback, post time runs a close second to post routes, and in the off-season, six-furlong sprints take over from three-step drops. Jerry Delhomme has trained a small stable of Thoroughbreds in central Louisiana for about 35 years, and long before that, his father, Sanders, was a trainer. Jake Delhomme dabbles as an owner.

In the Delhomme family of Breaux Bridge, La., racehorses run deeper than football.

"Growing up, Jake and his older brother, Jeff, every day they were in with the horses," Mr. Delhomme said. "Jeff's my exercise rider. Jake, when he's here, he's the pedigree expert. He'll get in and muck stalls and help out. We do everything ourselves. It's more than just a hobby. We take it pretty seriously, and we make a little money at it."

Mr. Delhomme runs his small string off the family farm, where the horses exercise on a half-mile training track. This week, Mr. Delhomme was headed to nearby Evangeline Downs early in the morning to break a couple of 2-year-olds. Mr. Delhomme works full time in the Louisiana Department of Agriculture as a food safety inspector, but has plans to invest himself fully in the Thoroughbred business.

"I'm trying to set my retirement to time with Jake's," Mr. Delhomme said. "We'll really focus on this thing. Jake, when he's done playing football, I think he'd select horses over coaching."

Breaux Bridge is hard-core Cajun country. The city bills itself as "The Crawfish Capital of the World." Less than 10,000 people live in town, though the population gets fairly dense in the rural areas, and close to 50,000 people live in St. Martin Parish. Still, the area is small enough that the sprawling Delhomme family, several dozen strong, was widely known even before Jake emerged as a high school football star. Jake's legend grew as he moved through the college ranks, and people all over the state pined to see him get more playing time when he backed up quarterback Aaron Brooks on the New Orleans Saints.

This is horse country, too. Small training tracks like the Delhommes' abound, and besides sanctioned racing at Evangeline, there are the bush tracks that have produced many of this country's top riders.

"Robby Albarado practically grew up in our back yard," Mr. Delhomme said. "He and Jake are still friends. It's a situation where Robby could call Jake, or Jake could call up Robby any time."

Mr. Delhomme said he never pushed his sons to get involved with horses, never forced them to work in the stables, but nurtured their interest quietly. It grew, and an attachment was formed. As an all-conference wide receiver at McNeese State University, Jeff used to drive to Delta Downs on weekends to exercise Mr. Delhomme's horses. Jake's hands-on horse time lessened when he left the New Orleans Saints for the Panthers this season, but he still stays attached.

"Jake and I talk every day," Mr. Delhomme said, "and it's not about X's and O's. It's about horses."

Jake Delhomme has gone from the second string to the Super Bowl in just two seasons, but during the same time, Mr. Delhomme's successes as a trainer have waned. He won just four races in 2003.

"The last couple seasons were a little slow," Mr. Delhomme said. "But I'm looking forward to next year. Jake's stable name is Set-Hut, and you're going to hear a lot about it."

Mr. Delhomme was able to engineer the claim of Ruthy Red at Delta. His son has a knack for knifing quick passes to an open receiver on third down. He finds ways to push his team forward and make something good happen. Back home with the horses, that is what Mr. Delhomme is counting on.