Fair Grounds Race Course: A Story Of Survival Through Wars, Fires & Hurricanes

Photo: Matt Gardner

The Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans is the third-oldest horse racing track in the United States. But the age of the course doesn't begin to tell the story of its survival through the decades.

The crowd began to file through the gates around mid-morning on this Saturday before Easter Sunday; they've been coming to this same location in New Orleans for almost 150 years to watch horses run. But on this day, the crowd also came to celebrate. Celebrate the 100th running of the Louisiana Derby. Celebrate the sport of thoroughbred racing in the city of New Orleans. And to celebrate the enduring legacy of one of the oldest racing facilities in the country: the Fair Grounds.

For the first time in almost a century, the infield is open to the general public, allowing fans at the Fair Grounds an opportunity to watch and celebrate from a unique perspective. Food trucks and vendors from around the Big Easy populate the infield; Crepes a la Carte, BBQ n Some and Fry Bar NOLA are just a few of the vendors on hand. Great food is a staple of New Orleans culture, and the Infield Fest at the Fair Grounds is no different. Whether you seek a BBQ pork sandwich, Louisiana catfish, Po-Boys, or some alligator étouffée over grits, there is no shortage of options for race fans on this Derby day.

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On the music stage, local bands Flow Tribe and Cowboy Mouth entertain the fans, pausing when the horses are loaded into the starting gate and during the running of each race. A few yards away, a tent houses Racing 101 fan education seminars featuring ambassadors from America's Best Racing and HorsePlayerNow.com, part of an on-going effort from the industry introduce new players to the intricacies, challenges and thrills of handicapping and betting a horse race.

On this the last Saturday in March of 2013, the Louisiana Derby is alive and well, and the Fair Grounds is bristling with excitement. That same excitement and vitality wasn't always present over the almost century and a half history of the course; horse racing in New Orleans has overcome many obstacles in the past in order to thrive and survive today.

140 Years of History

Opening in the fall of 1852, the Union Course, site of the present day Fair Grounds, is tucked away just a couple of miles north of the French Quarter in what is now known as the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans. The course held its first horse race, a harness race, that fall with the first thoroughbred meet occurring the following spring. Closed in 1857 due to competition from a neighboring track, the Union Course reopens in the 1859 under the name "Creole Course" and once again is the home to harness racing.

The Civil War erupts in 1861 and the course becomes the home for 3,000 Confederate troops and is renamed "Camp Walker". In 1863, the Creole Course is transformed into what is known as the Mechanics and Agricultural Fair Grounds, or the Louisiana Fair Grounds, for short. Racing continues during the Civil War along with a host of other activities at the track. Following the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Fair Grounds begins to plot its course forward.

In 1894, the Crescent City Derby, later to be known as the Louisiana Derby, is run for the first time at a length of one mile at the Fair Grounds. The heavy favorite, Buckwa, wins by five lengths in a time of 1:51 — a final time almost 20 seconds slower than what today's thoroughbreds will run.

The specter of war is not the only obstacle to racing at the Fair Grounds over the course of the decades. Multiple disputes between competing tracks and jockey clubs in the early part of the 20th century produces instability within the sport in New Orleans, not unlike many of the issues facing the sport today. Among the more notable disruptions at the course during this time is a seven year period without racing beginning in 1908. However, the human created conflicts are nothing compared to the assortment of natural disasters that challenge the course over the next century.

In 1919, a fire burns the Fair Grounds grandstand to the ground, requiring the construction of a temporary facility in time for that season's 54-day meeting. This won't be the first time a fire devastates the course, as in December of 1993 another fire breaks out at the track which engulfs and consumes the grandstand. In the aftermath of this fire, a multi-million dollar project is undertaken to completely rebuild the structure. The fire ultimately proves to be an opportunity to update and modernize the Fair Grounds with an enclosed (and air conditioned) grandstand and clubhouse area, along with the amenities that race fans and players have come to expect in modern times.

In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastates much of New Orleans, including the Fair Grounds. The roof of the grandstand is severely damaged due to the high winds and much of the area is flooded due to the breach in the levies. Racing at the Fair Grounds is cancelled and the remainder of the meet is moved to Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, Louisiana, in the northwest corner of the state. The following spring, the Louisiana Derby, the centerpiece race at the Fair Grounds, isn't run for the first time since 1940-1942 during World War II.

Like many venerable sports facilities, a race track is as much of a tribute to history as it is a place to watch history. Over the course of more than 140 years of racing at the Fair Grounds, some of the most notable horses in history have found their way into the starting gate in New Orleans. The infield at the Fair Grounds is the final resting place to several notable thoroughbreds to run at the track, including 1924 Kentucky Derby winner Black Gold, and Pan Zareta, a winner of 76 career races in 151 starts.

Among other storied horses to grace the Fair Grounds are John Henry, the feisty gelding that retired as the richest racehorse of all-time back in 1984, and Whirlaway, the winner of the 1941 Triple Crown.

"They're off in the Louisiana Derby!"

The excitement continues to build throughout the day's racing card, as it can only do at a horse race. While other sports take you on a three-hour ride with defined competitors during the entire duration, horse racing presents a completely different viewing experience. A major horse race is an experience as much as it is a single moment of competition. The big race of the day, the Louisiana Derby, is the ninth of 13 races on the card.; the first race loads into the gate at 1:00 pm Central time, with the feature race still almost five hours away.

As the hours and the races pass by throughout the day, the crowds continue to grow larger and larger. The stakes portion of the card begins several races prior to Louisiana Derby with fans lining the paddock and the rail to get a glimpse of some of the top thoroughbreds at the track and from around the country. The paddock (or saddling ring) at the Fair Grounds is cozy, allowing you to almost reach out and touch these 1,000-plus pound animals as they walk past you in preparation for their race. On this day, I'm fortunate enough to stand in the middle of the paddock next to the trainers, owners and jockeys prior to the running of the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap, the race immediately preceding the Louisiana Derby. Local favorite Mark Valeski walks by with a confident gait to the cheers of adoring fans. Graydar, the impressive winner of the Grade 1 Donn Handicap in Florida nearly a month ago, stands out among his rivals with his trademark coat glistening in the late afternoon New Orleans sun (photo below).

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As the hour approaches five o'clock in the Crescent City, the paddock, rail, grandstand and clubhouse are filled to the brim with fans, each one trying to stake out the best place to view the horses as they enter the track and head to the starting gate. There is no video screen facing the grandstand from the infield, meaning the fans along the rail will see the horses as they leave the starting gate and when they come off the far turn and head towards the finish line. The rest of the race will unfold through the colorful descriptions of track announcer John G. Dooley.

As the field of 14 three-year-old colts loads into the starting gate, the buzz from the crowd grows louder and louder. When John G. Dooley announces the last of contenders to move into their stall, the buzz becomes a roar. And then the gates open.

Longshots Hip Four Sixtynine and Titletown Five burst quickly from the gate and engage in a speed duel within the first half mile of the race. Each colt is making his first start in a race of this distance and it is not expected that either will be around at the end to contend for win honors. But the quick early fractions help to string the field out down the backstretch and provide a target for the off-the-pace horses to run at during the later stages of the race.

As the field moves down the backstretch, the two sprinters continue to carve out fast fractions but their rivals are slowly chopping down their lead with each and every stride. Revolutionary, the 5/2 favorite at post time, begins making his move from near the back of the pack as the field heads towards the far turn. After a half mile, Revolutionary is 12th with just two horses beat. After three-quarters of a mile, he's sixth and moving quickly to the front.

Entering the top of the stretch, the favorite fans six wide into the lane and takes command of the Derby. Long shot Mylute, also making a move from well back of the field, engages Revolutionary with just a furlong to run in an attempt to pull off the upset with the Fair Grounds crowd in full voice. At the wire, Revolutionary holds off Mylute by a long neck to the cheers of the crowd and, in the process, captures the $600,000 prize for his owners and a spot in the this year's Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

After the race, Revolutionary takes part in the time honored tradition of getting his picture taken in the winner's circle with his jockey, trainer and owners to the applause of the fans struggling to get a glimpse of this now serious contender for the Kentucky Derby. A few minutes later, the music in the infield starts up once again and the party at the Fair Grounds rolls on into the evening.

In the hours following Revolutionary's victory, the crowd begins to slowly file out of the Fair Grounds. The 2012-2013 meeting concludes on Easter Sunday after which the Fair Grounds will go dark until Thanksgiving Day when the next meet is scheduled to begin. For a track that's survived wars, fires, a Great Depression, and a hurricane that devastated an entire city, seven months isn't that long of a wait.

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