06/24/2003 11:00PM

Riders following the money as outside talent arrives

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BOSSIER CITY, La. - In a tip-off that the quality of racing will be improved at this Louisiana Downs meet, the riding colony is deeper than ever. The defending champ, Gerard Melancon, will face a host of new faces, among them Lonnie Meche, who is due to arrive after Churchill Downs closes July 6, and Eddie Martin Jr., the current leader at Lone Star Park.

Also new are Carlos Gonzalez, Steve Bourque, Roman Chapa, Don Pettinger, and Jeremy Beasley.

Those riders join regulars Jamie Theriot, who led the standings at Oaklawn Park; Kirk LeBlanc; Ron Ardoin; Tim Doocy; Glen Murphy; Don Simington; Shane Romero; and Guy Smith.

Improved purses and the addition of slot machines at Louisiana Downs has helped lure the new faces.

"I'd like to try and make Louisiana a year-long circuit, especially with the money [from] the slot machines," said Martin, who has a home in New Orleans. "I think we're going to be one of the elite states in the country, running for big money."

Dollar signs also brought Bourque, who has won multiple titles at Sam Houston Race Park and Delta Downs.

"This is my first time here on a regular basis since 1998," said Bourque. "The money is good, and I'm going to try to get some of it."

Melancon will ride at Louisiana Downs on Friday but must travel to Lone Star on Saturday for stakes engagements. He will then return full time to Louisiana Downs.

Martin will ride here Friday and is expected back in earnest after Lone Star closes July 13.

Walk in the Snow nears comeback

Walk in the Snow, who was voted horse of the meet last year following his second-place finish to Essence of Dubai in the Grade 2, $500,000 Super Derby, is nearing a comeback from a six-month layoff. He has not raced since December, when he won the $150,000 Louisiana Champions Day Classic at Fair Grounds.

During his time away, Walk in the Snow had surgery to remove two small spurs from his left knee, said Herman Taylor, who trains Walk in the Snow for his wife, Ginger. Part of his rehabilitation involved swimming at the couple's farm.

"I think he's 100 percent," said Taylor. "You're always curious how they're going to come back, and right now, I'm real pleased."

Walk in the Snow is nearing a race. He breezed a sharp five furlongs in 59.40 seconds Tuesday. In the saddle was regular rider LeBlanc.

The two went on a tear through Louisiana last year, winning the $60,000 Louisiana Breeders' Derby at Louisiana Downs in October and the $100,000 Louisiana Champions at Delta in November before taking the Classic.

Taylor said a possible comeback race for Walk in the Snow is the $75,000 Independence Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on turf here July 4, while a meet goal is the $75,000 Shiskabob on turf for statebreds Oct. 11. Another target for Walk in the Snow is the $75,000 Evangeline Downs Mile on Aug. 16.

New entry schedule

Entries will be taken at least 72 hours in advance of each card this meet, with the program for Friday having been drawn Tuesday. In years past, entries were typically taken 48 hours in advance, except for a Saturday draw for Thursday's races.

This meet, Louisiana Downs will draw Wednesday for Saturday, Thursday for Sunday, Saturday for Thursday, and Sunday for Friday. No entries will be taken on Fridays.

The new schedule is in response to requests from horsemen, according to Pat Pope, director of racing and racing secretary. He said it should prove helpful to trainers sending horses to the track from training centers in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas.

"This way it helps them set up their travel plans ahead of time," he said.

New irrigation, railing on turf

The turf course was drawing compliments Tuesday from trainers like Eddie Ruiz, who has walked the course. He has horses entered in the two turf races to be run Friday, and on Saturday plans to move Due to Win Again back to turf, her best surface, for the $50,000 Honeymoon.

"It looks fantastic," Ruiz said of the course. "It's a little deeper this year, much thicker. It's very, very nice. I'm excited to get on it."

As part of improvements made to Louisiana Downs, a new irrigation system was installed for the turf course. The system measures ground moisture and can be set at a particular level, said Ray Tromba, vice president of racing operations.

Also new to the turf is a Fontana railing, which is collapsible and retractable.

Quarter Horse meet in 2004

Louisiana Downs will run a meet for Quarter Horses next year, but the dates have yet to be determined, said Tromba.

Tromba said a five-to-six-week meet would be a good way to introduce a Quarter Horse season. The meet will be a first at Louisiana Downs, which opened in 1974.

The track has, however, run Quarter Horse stakes in the past. This meet, the track will run the $250,000 Louisiana Quarter Horse Breeders' Association Sale Futurity on Aug. 17 and the $275,000 LQHBA Futurity and Consolation on Oct. 19. Trials for both of those races will be run on two Wednesdays during the meet, July 30 and Oct. 1.

Guillory walking, working

David Guillory, who was 23 wins short of career victory 2,500 when he suffered career-ending spinal injuries in a spill last meet, has made great strides in his recovery.

He is walking on his own after spending part of the last year in a wheelchair, then on crutches. This meet, Guillory will be working alongside his wife, Kristina, in their tack shop on the backstretch at Louisiana Downs.

"I feel great," said Guillory. "My hands are still a little slow at things. They said that is the last thing to come back around, but I've got more reach and more movement with my arms than I had."

Guillory estimates he has about 70 percent of the strength back in his arms, and is encouraged that they are still healing. "I have made a lot of progress," he said.

* Hall of Fame rider Eddie Delahoussaye and renowned equine artist Fred Stone will sign autographs here Friday and Saturday. Delahoussaye is a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame while Stone's work is featured in 11 murals throughout the redecorated Louisiana Downs.

* New York City Off-Track Betting Corp. will pick up the full-card simulcasts of the entire opening weekend at Louisiana Downs.

* Country recording artist Ty Herndon will sing the national anthem Friday.