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…