10/29/2003 1:00AM

Slots have track purses soaring


Spurred on by nearly 1,500 slot machines, the once tiny Delta Downs in Vinton, La., is rapidly becoming one of the top tracks on the Louisiana-Texas circuit. Last year, slot machines enabled Delta to quadruple its purses and introduce the Delta Jackpot, a $500,000 race for 2-year-olds.

Another round of changes have been made for the 86-night meet that opens Friday, topped by a richer Delta Jackpot that has been increased to $1 million. There is also a new $1 million night of stakes for Louisiana-breds on Feb. 7; six additional dates of racing; new riders such as Marlon St. Julien and Kirk LeBlanc; and new stables led by Cole Norman and Ray Tracy, a top trainer at Prairie Meadows.

Purses will average $190,000 a night, putting Delta in a position to compete for horses with Fair Grounds and Sam Houston Race Park. That distribution is up from a year ago, when Delta opened the meet at $160,000 a night and ended up averaging $170,000. The stakes program's value has also increased, from $2.5 million to nearly $4 million.

"We have new jockeys and trainers in part because [they saw] the money was good last year," said Jack Bernsmeier, senior vice president of Louisiana properties for Delta owner Boyd Gaming.

Delta, which turned 30 last month, entered a new era in May 2001 when Boyd, a Las Vegas casino firm, purchased the track for more than $100 million. By February 2002, slot machines were up and running on the first floor of the grandstand, resulting in record purses and widespread improvements to the plant.

And changes are still being made. Delta recently received regulatory approval to expand its casino floor, from 15,000 square feet to approximately 40,000 square feet.

"We are making the casino floor larger to make it more accommodating for the customers," said Bernsmeier.

The number of machines won't increase, but things like spacing between the aisles will. Delta is also constructing a VIP player room for high-end slots customers, and a hotel, to be built east of the grandstand, is in the design phase.

So far this year, the machines at Delta's casino have grossed $97 million.

The opening-night feature is the $40,000 Racino Inaugural, a five-furlong sprint for 3-year-olds and up. Front Nine, who is trained by Tommie Morgan and who will be ridden by Kerwin Clark, figures to be favored in the full field of 10.