12/01/2003 12:00AM

Little Vinton becomes hot spot


When one of the nation's smallest tracks puts up one of the country's biggest purses, people notice. And that's just what officials from Delta Downs in Vinton, La., were hoping would happen when they doubled the purse for Friday night's Delta Jackpot.

The 1 1/16-mile race for 2-year-olds is drawing horses from as far away as Canada and California, including a coupled entry from trainer Bob Baffert - Cooperation and Consecrate. His reason for shipping all the way from Southern California to a town of 3,338 for a race is simple mathematics.

"One mil-l-l-lion dollars!" said Baffert, referring to a line from the movie "Austin Powers."

That's the purse for the Jackpot. The race is the second richest 2-year-old stakes in North America behind the $1.5 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

The Jackpot is probably the most significant racing event in Vinton since Pat Day chartered a plane there and won two races on the last day of 1982, edging Angel Cordero for the national riding title. A blip on the map, Vinton covers just 4.8 square acres about 120 miles east of Houston. It's an easy town to miss, and hardly a destination for valuable racehorses.

But money is an equalizer, and since more than 1,400 slot machines were installed at Delta in February 2002, the good times have started to roll. Slots have grossed more than $225 million through October, according to records kept by the Louisiana Gaming Control Board.

Attendance has also soared since slots arrived, with more than 2.5 million people having visited the casino at Delta.

This has enabled the track, which has a six-furlong oval, to offer $4 million in stakes and a record $190,000 a night in purses. Just a few seasons ago, Delta was surviving on a diet of low-level claimers and paying out $40,000 a night in purses to its Thoroughbreds.

"Years ago the way things were going, you wouldn't think things would have turned around the way they have now," said Cole Norman, a Louisiana-based trainer who will start the undefeated Joe Six Pack in the Delta Jackpot.

"I love it. I love it. Years ago, you wouldn't have expected to have a million dollar race at Delta."

The Jackpot is not only the richest stakes at Delta, but also the richest race in Louisiana. The only other $1 million race that has been held in the state was the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs near Shreveport. It was worth $1 million from 1987-1991.

Last year, Delta introduced the Jackpot with a purse of $500,000. The winner was Outta Here, who shipped in from Southern California. Getting a flight into the region was tough, as there were restrictions into Houston and New Orleans, the closest major airports to Delta, because of the holiday season. Outta Here ended up flying into Dallas and vanning six hours to Vinton.

Things will be easier for the handful of Southern California invaders headed to Delta this year. The date of the Jackpot was moved up from last year's Dec. 21 in part to avoid the holiday travel restrictions, and as of Monday there were two flights of horses scheduled into Houston from Southern California.

Baffert's entry was to arrive Tuesday, while the filly Salty Romance is among those arriving on Thursday.

"I hope to go in their million-dollar race with her," said Patrick Biancone, who trains Salty Romance. "That is my first preference if we can."

The Jackpot field will be limited to 10 starters, based on earnings. If she is excluded, Salty Romance will go in the $250,000 Delta Princess on the Jackpot undercard, said Biancone. Mike Smith has the mount on the filly, who in her last start won her maiden at six furlongs in 1:09.40 at Hollywood Park.

Baffert said David Flores has the mount on Consecrate, while as of Sunday morning he had not firmed up plans on a rider for Cooperation. In his last start, Cooperation finished second to Lion Heart in the Grade 3 Prevue at Hollywood Park.

Baffert's entrants, both owned by Houston furniture magnate Jim McIngvale, figure to vie for favoritism with Judiths Wild Rush, an undefeated colt who earned a 105 Beyer Speed Figure last out for his 10-length romp in the $135,000 Display at Woodbine. Judiths Wild Rush arrived at Delta on Friday morning following a 26-hour van ride from Toronto.

Others pointing for the Jackpot are Perfect Moon, winner of the Grade 2 Best Pal for trainer Doug O'Neill; America America, who defeated male rivals in her 16th start of the year last out in the $150,000 Sam Houston Texan Juvenile; Mr. Jester, who won the Grade 3 Kentucky Cup Juvenile following the disqualification of Pomeroy for interference; and the Todd Pletcher-trained Tales of Glory, who has won his last two starts.

Stolen Time, winner of the $100,000 Foolish Pleasure at Calder Race Course, has been withdrawn from consideration for the Jackpot, said his trainer, Bill White.

Among the possibles for the Jackpot are Bogangles, Fire Slam, and Jaguar Friend.

Entries for the race were to be drawn Tuesday.