New Orleans — a racing town

I’ve long enjoyed thoroughbred racing.

One of the many reasons I like New Orleans is because, among other things, it’s a racing town.

I hope some of the thousands of Arkansans in the city for the Sugar Bowl found time to make it out to the historic Fair Grounds Race Course. The horses run each Thursday through Monday this time of year at the Fair Grounds.

Union Race Course, which today is the site of the Fair Grounds, was laid out along Gentilly Road in 1852, making it the oldest thoroughbred racing site in the country that’s still in operation. Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the Fair Grounds, but it was partially rebuilt in time to host the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April 2006.

Other restoration work was completed in time for the start of the 135th racing season that began on Thanksgiving Day 2006.

Here’s how The Associated Press began its story late that afternoon: “They hauled off soil tainted by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters and rebuilt a grandstand roof ripped free by the storm’s wind. After more than a year of renovations, costing about $16 million, a Thanksgiving tradition — horse racing — returned to New Orleans on Thursday.

“The annual winter meet has started on Thanksgiving Day in all but a few years since 1934. Until last year, when Katrina forced the Fair Grounds to move its season to Louisiana Downs near Shreveport, people like 16-year-old Joe Talamo had spent nearly every Thanksgiving in memory at the venerable New Orleans track, where live oak trees, hundreds of years old, grace the infield.

“Talamo, who grew up in suburban Marrero and is now an apprentice jockey, won the first post-Katrina race under a clear blue sky and in front of a swelling crowd.”

It was fitting that someone who had been coming to the Fair Grounds every Thanksgiving since he was a young child was aboard that first post-Katrina winner. It was also fitting that the horse was trained by a Louisiana native, Larry Robideaux. He had been running horses at the Fair Grounds since 1960 and had last won an opening race in 1968.

“Much as with the New Orleans Saints’ return to the Louisiana Superdome in late September, thousands flocked to the track simply to be part of the rebirth of what had long ago become a quintessential New Orleans experience,” the AP reported.

Patsy Rink brought 13 grandchildren that day along with a number of other relatives.

“I used to come here as a child,” she said. “We always came Thanksgiving Day, and we came as a family. We’re just thrilled to be back. I’m looking forward to seeing all my friends. … People from New Orleans love the track. It’s part of us.”

The 1,200 dining spaces for that Thanksgiving sold out in 35 minutes when they became available.

The AP noted: “Spectators — from hard-core types, losing themselves in the Racing Form, to gatherings of sharply dressed socialites sipping bloody marys — meandered from the grandstand to the flower-laden paddock. The smell of fried turkey, a Louisiana holiday tradition, wafted in the air. Crooner and actor Harry Connick Jr. was there with his dad, a retired Orelans Parish district attorney. Carolina Panthers quarterback and Louisiana native Jake Delhomme was listed as the owner of a horse named Seventy Two Reno in one of the 10 races. Delhomme’s father, Jerry Delhomme, was the trainer of the horse, which placed fourth.”

Jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins played the call to the post before being joined by regular track bugle player Les Colonello in a stirring rendition of “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

It wasn’t the first time the place had to be rebuilt. A massive fire had destroyed the grandstand on Dec. 17, 1993, but temporary facilities were erected and that year’s race meet continued. Construction began in July 1994 on a $27.5 million grandstand. Completion of the grandstand was delayed due to scandals in the gaming industry (nothing is ever boring when it comes to Louisiana politics), but the facility finally opened on Thanksgiving Day 1997.

For years, many old New Orleans families have made it a tradition to spend Thanksgiving at the Fair Grounds for opening day. Things became a bit complicated this past November when the city’s beloved Saints found themselves playing football in Dallas that afternoon. Fair Grounds management (the track is now owned by Churchill Downs Inc.) responded by moving up the races so patrons could be home in time to watch the Saints post a thrilling come-from-behind victory over the Cowboys.

When Union Race Course was laid out in 1852, there were already two tracks — the Metairie and Louisiana courses — that had been operating since 1838. Unable to compete with the Metairie course, Union Race Course ceased operations from 1857 until 1859. The Metairie Trotting and Pacing Club leased Union in 1859 and renamed it the Creole Race Course. Many notable horses competed there, including the trotter Ethan Allen, who was known as the Pride of New England.

During the Civil War, the Creole Race Course evolved into the Mechanics’ and Agricultural Fair Grounds and was leased by several promoters. Among them was a notorious Mississippi riverboat gambler by the name of George Devol. There was thoroughbred racing, harness racing, quarter horse racing and even cavalry racing. There were also boxing matches and baseball games.

Soon the place became known simply as the Fair Grounds and was quite popular with New Orleans gamblers even though the quality of the horses was poor. The good horses, you see, had been confiscated by Union troops.

Down the road, the Metairie Jockey Club reorganized at the end of the war. The course was rebuilt and meets were run there from 1867-72. But a fight developed between the younger and older members of the club. In 1871, the younger members announced the formation of the Louisiana Jockey Club with plans to conduct spring and fall meets at the Fair Grounds. Plans to turn the old Metairie course into a cemetery came to fruition soon afterward.

The inaugural day of racing for the Louisiana Jockey Club at the Fair Grounds was April 13, 1872. The first race was — get this — a two-mile hurdle with eight jumps. The feature race was won by Monarchist, a son of the great Lexington, in two consecutive two-mile heats. Gen. George Custer of all people had a horse name Frogtown run second in a pair of two-mile heats. In attendance that day was Grand Duke Alexis of Russia.

Talk about history.

The first post parade occurred in 1873. The starter, who when he wasn’t at the track was described as a journalist and a manager of tragedians (I think I’ll start using that when people ask me what I do) “called the horses to walk, after the French style, up and drawn the homestretch, in procession. This new system would have succeeded admirably had it been carried out in proper spirit by the jockeys.”

That’s how a newspaper described it.

Parimutuel wagering later was introduced as an option, and the Fair Grounds was the only track in the country by 1900 to have accepted and continued the system.

Some other memorable moments included:

— Former President U.S. Grant attended part of the spring meet in 1880.

— Electric lights were used in the grandstand for the first time in 1882 and a steeplechase course was installed.

— Pat Garrett, the man who killed Billy the Kid, raced a stable at the Fair Grounds in 1893.

— The Fair Grounds was converted into an Army camp during the summer of 1898 for Spanish-American War maneuvers. That same year, one jockey had been suspended for pistol practice in the jockeys’ room.

— Frank James, the brother of Jesse James, was appointed betting commissioner in 1902. Like I said, Louisiana politics is never boring.

— Diamond Jim Brady attended part of the winter meet in 1906.

I could go on and on. Arkansans enjoy racing as well as football. I hope some of them had the chance to drop by the Fair Grounds and warm up for the Oaklawn meet that begins later this month.

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