Happy 2009! I walked home from New Year’s Eve dinner in relatively balmy temperatures in the fifties, wearing just a light jacket, and turned on the television to watch the brave? foolish? insane? revelers back home in New York shivering in single-digit temperatures. Much as I love home, I can’t say that I was sorry to be missing it!
The coat-obviating weather is only one reason that yesterday’s maiden voyage to the Fair Grounds was so pleasant; another is the second floor exhibit devoted to racing history, which I sought out thanks to a tip from John at The Race is Not to the Swift. Including information on racing history in general, Louisiana history in general, and Louisiana racing history, it’s an incredibly comprehensive look at where Louisiana fits into the national racing scene.
The Fair Grounds is the oldest site on which racing has been continually in operation in this country; beginning in 1852 as Union Race Course, the track’s name soon changed to Creole Race Course. Racing in New Orleans dates even earlier; the first track was constructed here in 1814, and several tracks opened in the 1820’s. In 1847, New Orleans hosted four racetracks, and according to author Bob Roesler, in 1850, the New York-based racing paper Spirit of the Times noted that New Orleans was “the national center of thoroughbred racing.”
The first meeting at the Fair Grounds (so called because in 1859 the site was home to the Mechanics and Agricultural Fair) was held by the Louisiana Jockey Club in April of 1872, nine years after Saratoga’s first meeting. In fact, according to Edward Hotaling, the Fair Grounds billed itself as “the Saratoga of the South.” A year after the track’s opening, horses entered in the Orleans Stakes were required to walk in a post parade “after the French style”—the jockeys were reportedly not happy about it.
The first Crescent City Derby, the precursor to the Louisiana Derby, was held in 1894; as was the case in 1911 in New York, anti-gambling laws shut down racing in Louisiana between 1908 and 1915.
On December 28th, 1918, a fire destroyed the grandstand; in a testimony to the city’s resilience and New Orleanians’ desire for racing, the track re-opened three days later, after construction of a temporary grandstand. 12,000 people showed up.
While there’s no disputing that today’s racing journalists are having a tough time, they might perhaps be glad that they weren’t covering the sport in New Orleans in 1952, when three major New Orleans newspapers ceased racing coverage at the request of the police superintendent. Maybe if we don’t cover it, it will go away?
More recently, the Fair Grounds held its 2005 – 2006 meeting at Louisiana Downs after Hurricane Katrina flooded much of the Fair Grounds’ and tore the roof off of the grandstand and clubhouse. For the first time in 91 years, there was no winter racing in New Orleans.
The mini-museum (more on that in an upcoming post), the photos around the track, and the detailed timeline posted on the website all indicate that Fair Grounds is a track that honors its history. Even the casual fan can learn a lot about how racing came to be in this city, and about the many storied jockeys, horses, trainers, and races that left their marks here.
To learn more about any of the above, check out the terrific history page on the Fair Grounds website; I also took extensive notes from the exhibit at the racetrack and consulted a mouth-watering book, The Fair Grounds: Big Shot & Long Shots, by Bob Roesler, a gift of Eric Halstrom, the vice-president and general manager of racing at the Fair Grounds, who was our incredibly gracious and generous host.
More tomorrow on this terrific track.
“History.” Fair Grounds Race Course. 1 January 2009.
Hotaling, Edward. They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
Roesler, Bob. The Fair Grounds: Big Shots & Long Shots. Metairie, LA: Arthur Hardy Enterprises, Inc., 1998.