12/08/2004 12:00AM

Slots bring boom for Louisiana-breds

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Crimson Stag, winning his maiden at Saratoga, is a likely Louisiana Champions Day favorite.

NEW ORLEANS - Louisiana-bred horses have come an awfully long way in the past 20 years. Every day at Fair Grounds there are two or more large, competitive fields of Louisiana-breds, and Saturday's $1 million Louisiana Champions Day card will feature seven Thoroughbred and three Quarter Horse races.

Back in the 1980's, Louisiana-breds were not a major feature, according to Ronnie Virgets, a New Orleans columnist and television personality. "Back then we called them 'lousy breds,' " Virgets said. "They might have had one race a day, maybe the fourth race, restricted to Louisiana-breds."

Times sure have changed. Champions Day will showcase the cream of the Louisiana-bred crop - horses like defending Classic champion Spritely Walker, probable Juvenile favorite Crimson Stag; and showdowns between Destiny Calls and Happy Ticket in the Ladies, Mr. Sulu and Bebe Garcon in the Turf, and Zarb's Dahar and Zarb's Luck in the Sprint.

"It's been a long time coming," said Louisiana trainer Gary Palmisano, who will saddle Destiny Calls in the Louisiana Champions Day Ladies. "Over the years, as the regular pots grew, so did the statebred pots. People would go to Kentucky and buy a horse for $100,000, then get a $10,000 horse here and run for the same pot in a Louisiana-bred race. Gradually the horses got better, and now the yearling prices are going up. Back then if you got $7,500 for a horse, you got plenty. Now you can get 50 to 60 thousand for a Louisiana-bred."

Crimson Stag, a 2-year-old colt by Glitterman, epitomizes the improvement in Louisiana-breds. All of his races have been against open company, including a maiden victory at Saratoga and a pair of in-the-money finishes at Keeneland. The Juvenile will be his first start in a restricted race.

In the old days, Louisiana-breds would race in open company only on the rarest of occasions. But in the 1990's, several very good horses emerged from Louisiana. Free Spirit's Joy won the 1991 Grade 1 Super Derby. Dixie Poker Ace won the first three runnings of the Turf. Scott's Scoundrel became the richest Louisiana-bred in history over a six-year career from 1994 through 1999 that netted $1.27 million over 50 races, including open-company victories in the 1995 Prelude, the Grade 3 New Orleans Handicap in 1996, the Louisiana Handicap in 1997, and the Evangeline Downs Mile Handicap in 1998. Hallowed Dreams won the first 16 races of her career in 1999 and 2000. Walk in the Snow, Fuse It, and the late Oak Hall have all distinguished themselves in recent years.

The architect of the Louisiana Thoroughbred breeders' program is Tom Early, secretary and treasurer of the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders Association. Early runs the operation from a trailer on the Fair Grounds backstretch.

"I've been here 31 years and I've seen it all," he said.

Early said that when offtrack betting parlors were legalized in the state in 1987, "we realized $270,000 in additional money and began to build on that. In 1989 the board of directors of our association had the idea to do something like the Maryland Million."

That idea turned into Louisiana Champions Day in 1991, seven races for different divisions of Louisiana-bred horses. That same year, the association voted to open its breeding program to outside stallions.

"Prior to 1991 you had to breed back in Louisiana," Early explained. "It made it possible for a lot of people to breed to better quality horses. We've seen a steady rise in yearling prices and a steady rise in the foal population since then."

Sean Alfortish, a New Orleans lawyer who was involved in the lawsuit against the previous owners of Fair Grounds over the distribution of video poker revenue, is an enthusiastic owner and breeder.

Alfortish points to the last Keeneland yearling sales as proof of the progress Louisiana-breds have made. "There were Louisiana-breds selling there by stallions like Fusaichi Pegasus and Wild Again," he said. "We're not far from a point where you might get six figures for mares dropping foals in Louisiana, which was unimaginable five years ago."

The Louisiana breeding industry got another boost when Churchill Downs Inc. bought Fair Grounds.

"The first thing new general manager Randall Soth said was that CDI wanted to package multiple stakes into big race days," said Early. "I thought, well, we've got just what they want on Champions Day. We're 14 years ahead of the curve on Churchill with that idea."

Soth believes that there is much potential in the Louisiana-bred program.

"They're very excited about what they're seeing in terms of stallions coming in to stand in Louisiana," Soth said. "What's going to happen is you'll see stallions coming from outside Louisiana to breed to Louisiana-bred mares. The slot machine revenue has made an enormous impact on the purse money available for Louisiana-breds at Delta Downs, and we anticipate it will impact the purse structure here as well."

With slots approved for Fair Grounds and likely to be in place sometime in 2005, another quantum leap in the quality of the Louisiana-bred program is already in progress. Early points to the quality of this year's Champion's Day fields as proof of that progress.

"This year in particular the Classic is the most competitive it's ever been," said Early. "In previous years one horse would always be a standout. I guess the favorite must have won the Classic 70 percent of the time."

Those "lousy-breds" are downright respectable these days.