11/30/2004 1:00AM

Old-timers won't recognize the place


In 1985, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin stopped by Delta Downs in Vinton, La., to see a friend while on the way from Florida to California to work for D. Wayne Lukas. When McLaughlin starts Closing Argument in the $1 million Delta Jackpot on Saturday, he will be surprised to see how the track has changed in the last 19 years.

In fact, much has changed in just the past few years. Boyd Gaming purchased the track in 2001, then added a slots casino in 2002 that has helped push purses to record levels of close to $200,000 a day. Boyd also has made many improvements to the facility, and its latest upgrade will be new to those who have not seen the track since last year's Jackpot, said Jack Bernsmeier, senior vice president of Louisiana properties for Boyd.

A 203-room hotel has been built on the grounds, he said, with a tentative opening date of February 2005.

"It's topped out now and we're putting the color on the outside of the building," said Bernsmeier.

The hotel includes 30 suites, and it is being wired for cable so that races can be piped into the facility. Plans also call for individual palm-pilot-sized tote machines, said Bernsmeier, so patrons can bet the races from their rooms.

In other improvements in the last year, the casino floor has been renovated, the paddock has been remodeled, there is upgraded parking, and the six-furlong track has improved lighting. Also added are two plasma screens to show races on the casino floor. A third screen will be added before the Jackpot is run.

Delta is also considering expanding its main track and adding a turf course as early as 2005.

Closing Argument will be one of the top contenders Saturday. He was scheduled to van out of his Florida base on Wednesday and arrive in Vinton early Thursday. The Jackpot will be his fourth stakes appearance. Closing Argument won the $200,000 NATC Futurity at Delaware Park in September, ran third in the $400,000 In Reality for Florida-breds Oct. 23 at Calder, and came back and ran second there in the $150,000 Jack Price Juvenile in his last start Nov. 13.

"He's just a really nice horse that does everything right," said McLaughlin, who trains Closing Argument for Philip and Marcia Cohen.

Earlier this week, McLaughlin was figuring out travel plans for himself, and said if he did not come to saddle Closing Argument, his brother, Neal, would be at Delta to do so.

"I want to be there," said McLaughlin.

Anthony J. arrives from Florida

Anthony J. arrived at Delta Downs late Monday following about a 16-hour van ride from Gulfstream, and he is one who will benefit if a speed duel ensues in the Jackpot. He has a strong closing kick, and used it to win his maiden at six furlongs at Monmouth on Oct. 8. One start later he closed fast for second in the In Reality at Calder over 1 1/16 miles.

"He's turning out to be a nice little colt," said Bill Perry, who trains Anthony J. for Bradley Cook. "I thought he made up a lot of ground in the race at Calder. He was steadied some down the backside and finally got out and made up a lot of ground."

That style has had success in the Jackpot. Outta Here won the inaugural running from a closing position, when he rallied from six lengths off the pace to get up for the win when the race was run at one mile. Last year, Mr. Jester used a stalking tactic to win the Jackpot.

Strong field for Princess

Stakes winners Summer Raven and Punch Appeal are among the 2-year-old fillies Delta officials consider probable for the $250,000 Princess Stakes. The one-mile race is one of four undercard stakes supporting the Jackpot.

Summer Raven won the Grade 3 Tempted at Aqueduct in her last start Nov. 2 for trainer Todd Pletcher, while Punch Appeal, a four-time stakes winner, won the $100,000 Pocahontas in her last start for trainer Steve Asmussen.

Other probables are Dressed for Succes, whose trainer, Patrick Biancone, won last year's Princess with Salty Romance; True Tails; Cash Counter; Snipper Lou; and My Three Sisters.

* Jenna Wheeler and Katie Ward, the on-air analysts for Beulah Park who are known as the Beulah Twins, will be at Delta on Saturday to help track announcer Don Stevens with prerace selections and postrace interviews during the card. They will also sign autographs at Delta.