10/25/2010 3:18PM

Delta opening with aim of putting Jackpot in greater spotlight


Delta Downs has given its biggest program of racing a makeover by returning the purse of its Grade 3 Jackpot to $1 million and moving up the date of North America’s second richest main-track stakes for 2-year-olds, to Nov. 20.

The race, which trails only the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in value on dirt, will also have a special day post this meet and be supported by seven other stakes, including the Grade 3, $500,000 Delta Princess. Purses for the program will top $2.3 million, making the card the richest run in Louisiana in 2010.

“The track wants to see if we can get more exposure of the big race to the masses,” Chris Warren, Delta’s director of racing, said of the changes the track’s owners, Boyd Gaming has made to the Jackpot.

The race is the highlight of an 88-date meet at Delta that opens Wednesday night and continues through March 26, 2011. Purses are projected to average $225,000 a card, and with no other Thoroughbred racing at the moment in either Louisiana or Texas, every field is a full one for the initial card Wednesday.

“We’ve got a quite a few horses because there’s nobody else open right now,” said John Simon, the racing secretary at Delta. “Fair Grounds isn’t open yet, and neither is Houston. We’ve got quite a few horses to draw from. We can’t complain.”

Warren said Delta received requests for about 3,000 stalls this meet, with 1,200 available on the backside in Vinton, La.

“We probably got an extra 400 to 500 [stall requests], mostly people from Texas,” he said. “It was more than last year by far.”

The region’s dynamics have changed over the past several months, with Sam Houston reducing its typical 60 night fall-spring season to a 27-date meet that will open Jan. 21. Louisiana Downs, meanwhile, closed its Thoroughbred meet two weeks earlier this year, while Fair Grounds will start its meet later than last year, reverting back to its traditional opening of Thanksgiving Day.

The factors have led to a wealth of horses for Delta, illustrated by the fact that 37 were excluded from one of the opening night races, while 28 were excluded from another. In what will help accommodate some overflow, Delta, a six-furlong oval that races a maximum of 10 horses a field, has introduced an also-eligible list. It was needed for eight of 10 races Wednesday.

Delta also will move to a five-day race week in late February, when it adds Sundays to its lineup starting with the program of Feb. 20. There will be a special day post of 3:05 p.m. on the five Sundays. It’s an experiment for the track, which is hoping the twilight post will make its signal appealing and the lack of football competition combined with spring weather will add to its ontrack business.

The Jackpot will get the meet into high gear, with the race moved from its traditional first Friday night in December to a Saturday afternoon in late November. Simon on Monday was in the process of confirming nominations, and had about 240 nominated to the race. That’s approaching three times the number of horses nominated to last year’s Jackpot, when the 1 1/16-mile race’s purse was $750,000. As for the Princess, there are about 115 nominations, Simon said early Monday.

Keith Bourgeois, who has won the last seven training titles at Delta, is back to face off with a stable area that includes new faces Bernie Flint, Danny Pish, and Burton Sipp. Others with divisions on the grounds include Steve Asmussen, the nation’s leading trainer, who has a larger presence this year at Delta; Karl Broberg, who is in his first full season in Vinton; and Tony Richey, who won the training title at Louisiana Downs.

Diego Saenz, who won last year’s riding title, on Wednesday will have his first mount since late August, when he broke his collarbone at Evangeline Downs. John Jacinto, who dominating the standings at Evangeline, and Don Simington, who was the riding champion at Louisiana Downs, are also part of the colony at Delta.