11/29/2004 12:00AM

Lured to Louisiana

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Benoit & Associates
All roads lead to Delta Downs, in Vinton, for horses from as far away as California, including early favorite Texcess (above), for Saturday's Delta Jackpot.

Delta Downs is kind of like Nad Al Sheba in Dubai. It is not easy to get there, but the financial rewards can be great. And so, 2-year-olds from Southern California, Florida, and New York are scheduled to travel to the small town of Vinton, La., for the $1 million Delta Jackpot on Saturday.

The 1 1/16-mile race is the second richest 2-year-old stakes in North America behind the $1.5 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and it is the richest race in Louisiana.

The money has led horsemen from across the country to pencil in the race on their calendars, and for its third running this year the Jackpot is expected to draw a full field of 10 when entries are taken on Wednesday.

"I've got a million reasons to come," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who is sending leading contender Closing Argument from Florida.

The early Jackpot favorite is Texcess, who won his maiden in the $125,000 California Cup Juvenile in October. He is scheduled to fly into Houston from his Hollywood Park base on Wednesday, then van about two hours to Delta, said his trainer, Paul Aguirre. Victor Espinoza has the mount on Saturday.

Delta, which is about 120 miles from Houston, opened a slots casino in February 2002. Business has been constant ever since, with October's admissions totaling 138,279, and gross slots revenues reaching $10,321,330, according to the latest report from the Louisiana Gaming Control Board.

Such wealth led Delta to introduce the Jackpot at the end of 2002, with a purse of $500,000. Last year, the purse was doubled to $1 million.

"A lot of reason for creating the race was to really jump-start the business," said Jack Bernsmeier, senior vice president of Louisiana properties for Boyd Gaming, which purchased Delta in 2001.

"People will come for money," he said. "My hope is that we can actually grow [the purse]. The next big hurdle for us is to get the race graded. We have great hopes it will get graded at some point."

It would be a big accomplishment for Delta, which despite its small size and tucked-away locale has played some interesting roles in racing history. Just last month, Steve Asmussen broke Jack Van Berg's victory for trainer wins in a calendar year when Coronado Rose won the track's $40,000 Delta Belle. And in 1982, jockey Pat Day chartered a plane to Vinton and won two races on the last day of the year to win the national riding title over Angel Cordero. It all happened on a six-furlong track, in a town of 3,338.

It's a population that will swell on Saturday, when four stakes are run on a card that has a special post of 3 p.m. Central. Delta has moved the Jackpot from a Friday night, and the race itself has a scheduled post of around 6:15 p.m. There is an all-stakes pick four encompassing races 5 through 8, and it carries a guarantee of $50,000.

The move to a weekend date is an attempt to capture additional players, with the idea being that more people will be off work and able to see the race, whether live or via simulcast, on a Saturday versus a Friday.

"It's an experiment more than anything else," said Bernsmeier. "More big races are on a Saturday than any other day."

All of the activity figures to again produce a full house of patrons, while Bernsmeier is hopeful the track will exceed last year's record handle of $2,477,493.

For now, however, the field is just starting to assemble. Closing Argument, winner of the $200,000 National Thoroughbred Consignors Futurity at Delaware Park, is scheduled to van from his Palm Meadows Training Center base in Florida to Vinton on Wednesday, said McLaughlin. The horse will be ridden by Cornelio Velasquez.

Anthony J., who rallied for second in the $400,000 In Reality division of the Florida Stallion Stakes on Oct. 23 in his last start, vanned out of his Gulfstream Park base at 5 a.m. Monday and was due to arrive at Delta late the same evening, said his trainer, Bill Perry. Jose Velez Jr. has the mount on Anthony J.

Others that officials consider probable for the race are Leaving on My Mind, winner of the $100,000 Jean Lafitte at Delta on Nov. 6; Major League, runner-up last out in the $150,000 Sam Houston Texan Juvenile; Funk, runner-up in the Grade 3 Laurel Futurity; United, My Parade, and Cherokee Path. Possibles include Accurate and Chips Are Down.

Bushwacker, who is co-owned and trained by Bill Currin, will start if he can draw into the race. The Jackpot gives preference to highest earners, and Bushwacker, who has made just two starts, is teetering on the fringes but would be a nice addition. In his last start he was second to Declan's Moon in the Grade 3 Hollywood Prevue at Hollywood Park on Nov. 20.

"They'll have to get me in with a shoehorn," said Currin, who won the inaugural Jackpot with Outta Here.

Spanish Chestnut is another who could run, but might need a defection to get into the Jackpot.

The race will be supported by the $250,000 Delta Princess, a one-mile race for 2-year-old fillies; the $75,000 Sam's Town; and the $75,000 Treasure Chest.