10/30/2006 12:00AM

Thoroughbred meeting is back

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Delta Downs in Vinton, La., will conduct Thoroughbred racing for the first time in 19 months when it opens its season Wednesday night. While the meet is not the first since Hurricane Rita damaged the track's grandstand and 20 of its barns on Sept. 24, 2005, it will signal a return to normalcy for Thoroughbred horsemen whose lives were impacted by the storm.

Delta reopened for racing April 13, when it began a meet for Quarter Horses. By then, new barns had been constructed, and the wind and water damage sustained by the grandstand had been repaired.

"We're back," said Chris Warren, director of racing for Delta. "The Quarter Horse meet went good, so most of the kinks were worked out."

Delta is poised for a strong meet, with its first graded race, the Grade 3, $1 million Delta Jackpot, set for Dec. 1. A 1 1/16-mile race for 2-year-olds, the Delta Jackpot was put on hold for one year following Rita. It is back to lead a $4 million stakes schedule as the richest race in Louisiana. Purses are expected to average between $220,000 to $225,000 a day this meet, including stakes, said Warren.

Delta's purses are fueled by its 1,500 slot machines. When the hurricane hit, it did more damage to the racing side of the grandstand than the track's casino, and the slots were able to resume operation about five weeks after the storm. Business has hummed along ever since. According to records kept by the Louisiana Gaming Control Board, slots at Delta churned out $13.3 million in adjusted gross revenues for the month of September.

The slots revenue has helped Delta increase the purses of the four stakes that will support this year's Delta Jackpot. Total purses for the card will now be more than $1.5 million, Warren said. That includes a $300,000 stakes for 2-year-old fillies. Last year, the one-mile race run on the Jackpot undercard was worth $250,000.

"We wanted to make the day bigger, get more people to think about coming," said Warren.

In another change, the Delta Jackpot will have pre-entries this year, on Nov. 15. Also, starting preferences have changed in response to horsemen's requests, said Warren.

"First preference is going to be the Jean Lafitte winner," he said. "We're going to give that to the horse who wins that prep race. Second preference will be horses which have finished third or better in graded stakes, and then the third preference is the old preference of horses with earnings."

Jackpot Night is one of several programs this meet that will boast multiple stakes. "We're going to have six nights of four stakes or more," said Warren.

The concept starts Friday night, when the first stakes of the meet will be run on Jackpot Preview Night. In all, four stakes worth a cumulative $350,000 will be run Friday, including the $150,000 Jean Lafitte, a one-mile prep for the Delta Jackpot.

The second stakes grouping will be held Nov. 18, when four Louisiana-bred stakes worth $275,000 will be run, a program designed to provide preps for the Louisiana Champions Day at Fair Grounds, said Warren. Then comes Delta Jackpot Night, followed by the $1 million Louisiana Premier Night program of 10 statebred stakes Feb. 3 and a quartet of stakes on March 2 that serve as preps for the $350,000 program of closing night stakes March 31.

First post is 6:20 p.m. Central, moved up from the typical 6:45 to finish earlier for the sake of bettors on the East Coast, said Warren.