Final thoughts on Fair Grounds

I have a new favorite out-of-town track.

I really liked Tampa Bay Downs when I was there a year ago, and I still think it’s terrific, but Fair Grounds is Tampa Bay Downs with good food and history, so it’s got the edge.

It may be the cleanest race track I’ve ever been to—the place is simply pristine.

Walking on to the apron from the parking lot at the clubhouse turn, we were greeted with a reminder of one of 2008’s superstars, and of her win in the Fair Grounds Oaks last March. A few minutes later, her trainer rode by, exercising one of his horses.

Watching the morning workouts, which are open to the public, was great, but I got sidetracked for a good forty-five minutes by the second floor historical display, imparting a thorough history of racing in the United States and in New Orleans.

Among the juicy tidbits:

April 11th, 1872: Last day for old Metairie. Charles T. Howard, who had been refused membership in the Metairie Jockey Club and had vowed to turn the place into a graveyard, bought the mortgage and developed the Metairie Cemetery on the site.

No lie—we were told that an aerial view of the cemetery, not far from the current track, reveals the ghost of an oval on the boundaries of the cemetery.

Apparently, Fair Grounds pioneered the idea of Ladies’ Day, producing special silk programs for distribution at the track; the programs also included information on the music that accompanied the racing that day. A special “Beauty’s Corner” was set aside as a place for the ladies to congregate. Breeders’ Cup, are you listening?

Track goers need not settle for the standard fare if they arrive at the races a bit peckish. $4.95 gets you a decent sized and very tasty bowl of red beans and rice; if you’re looking for something with a little more variety, the second floor grandstand buffet will set you back only $13.95 and offer shrimp gumbo; a salad bar; several varieties of soup; fruit; dessert (bread pudding TO DIE FOR!); red beans and rice (of course); ribs; steak, and much, much more. Wisely, the room contains neither a view of the track nor televisions, or punters could sit there all day gorging themselves.

My vegetarian traveling companion did not find New Orleans particularly compatible with her dining needs, but the folks at Fair Grounds aimed to please; when she inquired with a staff member about whether a buffet item was vegetarian, the chef himself came out to talk to her and offered to make her something to order, if she were having a hard time creating a meal from the buffet items. I swear.

Those wishing for a more upscale experience might venture to the clubhouse; the most committed track denizens can take advantage of the parterre boxes on the top floor. Commodious and comfortable, equipped with dedicated betting machines, a refrigerator, and extensive bar and food service, these boxes are available for lease only for the entire meet—no daily rates here. And they’re sold out, completely, for the current meet.

The races were largely written for Louisiana-breds, but each day a couple of open-company races stood out. The fourth on New Year’s Day featured eight brand-new three-year-olds, with breeding by Elusive Quality, Pulpit, and Devil His Due, et al. The two Asmussen horses finished 1-2. Yawn. The sixth race was an open-company maiden race…for fillies and mares, four and five years old. I kid you not. Lear Fan, Hennessy, Aptitude, Distorted Humor (MTO) all had progeny entered…four year old Fan Dame (Lear Fan – Sylvieguilhem by Nureyev) won it. One fewer four year old maiden on the planet.

A number of races featured older horses, something quite nice to see, and in fact, one of the first races we saw featured an impressive second-place performance by a ten-year-old.

Not much given to the sort of intense handicapping best served by the Daily Racing Form, I prefer track programs but found the Fair Grounds’ program a little scant in the information department; it offers few past performances and not a lot of detail, but that is apparently by design. Next time, I’ll print out Brisnet PP’s before I get there.

Other than utter futility at the windows, my two days at Fair Grounds were an unqualified pleasure, and I’m already trying to figure how soon I can get back there…

8 thoughts on “Final thoughts on Fair Grounds

  1. I’ve loved my time at the Fair Grounds too–I saw Steve Asmussen just wandering around looking contented. I love how close you can get to the dirt, too, like there’s really nothing between you and the racing. And NOLA! What a town! It’s like no other place I’ve ever been, a truly unique American city. Can’t wait to go back myself!

  2. Here, by contrast is the food at Laurel: Chicken noodle soup that changes (into something bad) by the day, Maryland crab soup that is revolting. You often find stray pieces of bacon in it that seem to have swam in from another dish. Daily specials (roasted chicken you would swear are sparrows; globs of overcooked, congealed substance labeled lasagna), hamburgers of low-quality chuck, hot doggers (not bad, but heart attacks in buns), awful tuna or ham sandwiches, processed chef salads, barely acceptable pizza at $4 a slice (more for toppings), fried chicken (not bad, but also a heart attack), popcorn and soft serve. I was there for simulcasting on Sunday and went to the bar for a Bloody Mary. The bartender had neither lemons or limes and she said it was because they don’t bring them down on “dark” days. Yes, there is a dining room, but . . . God, that bread pudding sounds good. — J.S.

  3. I only have one view of the Fair Grounds – Jazzfest! I’ve sat right in the middle of that paddock where the lagniappe stage is located for years and wondered what the races at this place must be like.The year Street Sense won the derby I was sitting in the middle of the paddock watching the derby on the paddock tote while a local band 007 was craking out the tunes.That turd course must get torn up by the fest and it for sure is not the cleanest time to be at the Fair Grounds, but I guarantee you the food is better then whatever they are selling at the track!

  4. Is the oyster bar next to the paddock still there? Best racetrack (or any sports venue for that matter) food anywhere. West Indian stand at Belmont/Aqueduct is 2d. Fish tacos at Del Mar 3rd.cheers, Chris

  5. I love New Orleans and Fair Grounds. My husband, Chris, and I were there in 2003, and we had a fantastic time. We’re friends with the track photographer, Lou Hodges (I met him when he was track photographer at Rockingham). Glad to see the historical display is still there, and that the food is as good as we remember it!

  6. Made my second visit to FG last month. The first was pre-Katrina and pre-CDI. I love the place and hope to visit it more often. I can fly there pretty easily for the day from Love Field.

  7. Teresa, Congrats on having your January 5 blog entry picked up by The Blood Horse today. Good for you!Val (from Old Friends)

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