01/07/2004 12:00AM

Wiggins's stock has clearly risen


NEW ORLEANS - Hal Wiggins, the longtime trainer from Texas, has been around horses for decades. He can work with lesser stock if he has to, and Wiggins has maintained his typical winning percentage while doing just that the last few seasons. Now, the good horses have come back.

Wiggins has two 3-year-old fillies bound for Fair Grounds stakes races, and several other stakes-level horses in his barn. The quality surge began last season in Kentucky, and he has begun 2004 with two wins from four starters - and plenty to look forward to in the near future.

But do not ask Wiggins to talk much about himself. Where his ego should sit, thoughts of others reside.

"I feel like I'm very, very fortunate and blessed to have the type of people to train for that I do," Wiggins said Monday. "To see them doing well just makes me feel so good."

Wiggins acknowledges the upgrade in his stock, but didn't dwell on his lack of star power. "You go after it day by day," he said. "You try to plan for the future, but sometimes you don't have time to look two or three years down the road. You get caught up in the everyday work."

Now, Wiggins's everyday work involves horses such as All Electric, who looked like a candidate for the Fair Grounds Oaks when she won an allowance race here last Sunday. Racing around two turns for the first time, All Electric rated nicely for Calvin Borel, collared the leaders coming off the turn, and drew off for a four-length win. She ran a mile in 1:38.80, a solid time on a moderately slow racetrack, and earned an 89 Beyer Speed Figure.

"She could be a decent filly," said Wiggins. "She's done everything we've asked of her. She's a little bit high-strung. She can be aggressive in the morning. But I was real pleased the way she relaxed."

Wiggins's other 3-year-old filly, Lotta Kim, is likely to run next in the $100,000 Tiffany Lass Stakes here Jan. 25. Lotta Kim, bred and owned by Dolphus Morrison, finished second to Be Gentle in the Grade 2 Golden Rod at Churchill, her most recent race.

Joyful Tune, a first-time starter, won her maiden by six lengths on Monday, while Engineered, a recent private purchase already with a win this meet, was a troubled third Sunday in a promising performance. "Calvin Borel is real high on him," Wiggins said.

Wiggins also has stakes hopes for the 4-year-old turf horse Rapid Proof, and a 3-year-old colt named Glittergem, who currently is stabled at a farm.

Handle soars with bigger fields

Driven by a substantial increase in field size, Fair Grounds has posted a 6 percent increase in overall daily handle this meet. After struggling to fill races early this season, which began Nov. 27, Fair Grounds has seen a marked increase in the number of horses entering its races, and through Sunday average field size stood at 9.12 horses per race. In a similar period last season, the track averaged 8.51 starters, a number that had dropped closer to 8 by meet's end.

Bettors across the country have responded positively. Average daily handle was up more than $232,000 over a similar period last season, from $3.89 million to $4.13 million. Ontrack handle and attendance have dropped slightly, but that is due mainly to bad weather on the two biggest days so far this meet, opening day and Louisiana Champions Day.

"The first two weeks, we kind of fell off, but I think things have leveled off," said Fair Grounds president Bryan Krantz.

Krantz said the trend was "within our tolerance" for maintaining the purse levels projected over the course of the meet. Fair Grounds cut purses during its last two race meets.

Meanwhile, Krantz said talks have "escalated" between Fair Grounds and the Louisiana Horsemens Benevolent and Protective Association as the two groups work to hammer out a financial settlement. The HBPA won a longstanding lawsuit against Fair Grounds last spring over the distribution of revenue from video poker machines, and to protect itself against a judgment that could go as high as $100 million, Fair Grounds declared bankruptcy.

Rumors have swirled that all or part of the Fair Grounds could be sold, and Krantz said outside parties "within the racing and gaming industries" have been involved in the negotiations with the horsemen's group.

Training race report

The second of three training races here Wednesday produced at least three horses worth following: Wall Street Afleet, Northern Stag, and Junqueman John. Wall Street Afleet, a Northern Afleet colt from the Becky Maker barn, won the race, but neither he nor Northern Stag, the horse he edged, was asked for run at any point. Both finished up quickly, as did Junqueman John, who was ridden a bit in the stretch after being held back early. Wall Street Afleet was timed in 1:01.80 for five furlongs.

* A field of about nine is expected for Saturday's feature, the $60,000 Black Gold, a turf race for 3-year-old colts. Saintly Look heads Sunday's stakes, the Colonel Power, which is contested at six furlongs on dirt.