12/09/2004 1:00AM

So far, Happy Ticket's done it all


Andy Leggio came up in the Ninth Ward, hardscrabble New Orleans, his father the author of a racetrack tout sheet.

At age 15, Leggio started spending his days, too, at the track, working around horses, later galloping them during morning exercise.

"I grew up in the rough area," Leggio said. "I didn't grow up with any silver spoons."

Fifty-five years after hitting the track, Leggio has partnered with a Louisiana-bred filly of rare quality. There is not a rough edge about her.

Happy Ticket has raced six times and won six times, her average margin of victory almost seven lengths. There is another nice Louisiana filly named Destiny Calls waiting for Happy Ticket on Saturday at Fair Grounds in the Louisiana Champions Day Ladies, but Happy Ticket just might belong to a different class.

"When a horse can win sprinting, long on dirt, long on grass - I haven't really had a horse like that [before]," said Stewart Madison, Happy Ticket's owner and breeder.

Happy Ticket launched her career in June, with a 9 3/4-length blowout in an open maiden sprint. Since then, she's been fed a steady diet of Louisiana-breds, and Happy Ticket has feasted. They got within a length of her in the Seneca Stakes three months ago on the Louisiana Downs grass course, but Happy Ticket came back to win the Louisiana Breeders' Oaks by seven lengths, and, venturing away from Louisiana Downs for the first time, she beat older horses in the $75,000 Magnolia Stakes a month ago at Delta Downs.

The versatility separates Happy Ticket from the last Louisiana-bred filly who turned heads this way, Hallowed Dreams. Hallowed Dreams won her first 16 starts, but she never raced beyond 6 1/2 furlongs. So far, there's been nothing Happy Ticket can't do.

"She's the best Louisiana-bred I've ever ridden," said Lonnie Meche, along for the ride during each Happy Ticket dusting. "She always has another gear left. She's a stocky filly, she carries a lot of weight, and a lot of people doubted she'd get the distance. But it's like she gives me another turn of foot in the stretch."

Happy Ticket is by the modest sire Anet, but she came out right. When Happy Ticket was a foal, Madison got a call from Glencrest Farm in Kentucky, where Happy Ticket was stabled with her dam, Love and Happiness.

"They told me she was one of the best-looking foals they'd ever seen," Madison said.

A great chasm yawns between flashy looks and performance. This is where the trainer comes in. Now 70, Leggio has learned a training trick or two, but don't expect him to hold court on them. Leggio is a steady-as-she-goes guy, detail-oriented, practical.

"This isn't that hard at all," Leggio said. "It's like riding a bicycle. You get up and do it every day."

Madison, of Jackson, Miss., has owned horses for 25 years, and had at least a couple with Leggio for 15.

"He's a very competent and careful trainer, and that's why I sent him this horse," Madison said.

Happy Ticket's dam, Love and Happiness, "was a pretty good horse, but she always had lots of problems," Madison said, adding that he feared Happy Ticket would turn out the same way.

"Andy's got a lot of patience," said Madison. "I told him, if anything comes up, let's just wait for the right time."

And things did come up. Happy Ticket went into training at 2, but her body wasn't ready. Three times Leggio called for a complete halt, and it took 16 months for Happy Ticket to make the races.

"She was just sort of brittle, but now she's matured," Leggio said. "She's a stronger horse."

Leggio's stable steadily has strengthened, too. His barn that for many years housed cheap claimers now has stakes horses most seasons, many of the best prospects from another Jackson, Miss., owner, Dr. Glen Warren.

Leggio seems to save his best lick for the Fair Grounds meet - home cooking. This year he's already won two: the Thanksgiving Handicap with Ole Rebel, and a high-end allowance race with Candid Glen, who hadn't raced in almost 1 1/2 years.

Different men might have drawn up different plans while Happy Ticket slashed through statebred-restricted competition, but Leggio and Madison have no grand dreams, not yet.

"Whenever they're running those races with the little 'La.' next to them, we'll be there," said Leggio. "If there's not one of them for awhile, we might go and try something else. Me, I'd rather be a big fish in a little pond."