Fair Grounds Kicks Off Its 142nd Season

CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH

And they’re off!

For generations of New Orleans horse racing fans, November is the time to get their wagers ready. The city’s track, now called Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, traditionally kicks off its season on Thanksgiving Day. This year, because the holiday falls so late in the month, racing begins a few days before Thanksgiving so the track can hold its required 84 days of action before the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival moves in.

The racecourse’s 142nd thoroughbred racing season opens on Nov. 22 with Starlight Racing. Fair Grounds spokesman Mark Conner says the night meet, with a 5 p.m. post time, will be a lively affair with the Chee Weez in the Clubhouse and DJ San-D in a trackside tent. Other attractions include food vendor carts and a beer garden. It is one way the racecourse tries to attract a younger crowd, including those who may never have been to the track, he says.

Starlight races are also scheduled for Dec. 20 (with the Bucktown All-Stars and DJ Crush); Jan. 17 (with Groovy 7 and DJ Digital); Feb. 7 (with The TopCats and DJ San-D) and March 14 (with The Mixed Nuts and DJ Kemistry). In all, the upcoming season will feature 58 races with purses totaling $7.51 million.

Other highlights of Nov. 22’s opening night schedule include exotic animal racing featuring camels and ostriches (slated for early in the evening to accommodate families) and a Mascot Race, pitting the track’s “Gentilly Billy” against other New Orleans area mascots. The exotic races are especially popular, Conner says. Last year more than 10,000 people came out for them.

Of course, lots of horseflesh lovers will make Nov. 28, Thanksgiving Day, their kickoff to the racing season. Families from all over the area like to combine their turkey dinners with the excitement of top-shelf racing. “I’m sure we’ll fill up quickly,” says Tim Bryant, who has been president of the Fair Grounds since 2010. Bryant, who came to the track from Harrah’s New Orleans Casino, says he sees lots of familiar faces each Thanksgiving and even has gotten to know some diehards who come in every live race day.

The Fair Grounds is the country’s third-oldest racetrack. Bought by Churchill Downs Inc. in 2004, the track also operates more than 620 slot machines and 11 off-track betting parlors in southeast Louisiana. Revenue from the slots helps beef up racing purses, Conner says. The slot machines are open year round.

In addition to thoroughbred racing, the Fair Grounds holds an annual Summer Quarter Horse Meet.

The racecourse’s clientele is a real “gumbo,” Conner says. Admission to the ground level and grandstand spots is usually free, while on the Clubhouse level patrons pay an admission fee and can enjoy fine dining. Businesses can reserve space for meetings; families hold debutante luncheons there and everybody enjoys the famed corned beef sandwiches that have sustained generations of bettors. On Thanksgiving and Derby Day the atmosphere is party-like and women enjoy wearing their most fashionable hats.

Depending on your cable provider, you might be able to catch Fair Grounds races at home on channel HRTV, Conner says. The action is also shown in 1,000 simulcast spots across the country.

Derby Day. This year the racetrack will hold the 101st running of the Louisiana Derby on March 29, with seven stakes worth $2.51 million. The meet will be the richest afternoon of racing in Louisiana history, Conner says. For the second consecutive year, Louisiana Derby Day will include an infield festival with live music and food and beverage stands. Post time will be 2 p.m.

Those who follow racing often consider the Louisiana Derby a prep for the Kentucky Derby, Bryant says, with Louisiana Derby Day jockeys going on to make strong finishes in the Kentucky Derby.

Attendance has been good at track events, Conner says. “We have fared very well in recent years on the track and the handle,” he says – and the turf looks good for the coming season.

The Black Gold 5 Prize will also be making a return. The winning bettor must be the only person who correctly selected the winners in the five final races of the day. If there is no winner, half the pool carries over and the other half is distributed as consolation prizes to the tickets with the most correct picks.

The only additions to the stakes schedule for the new season are two minor stakes restricted to Alabama-breds: the $50,000 Magic City Classic for older horses and the $25,000 Kudzu juvenile for 2-year-olds.
The season’s final Louisiana-bred event for older horses has been renamed the Star Guitar Stakes. Star Guitar became the all-time Louisiana-bred earning leader last year by winning the race that will now carry his name.

Last season, 10 of the Fair Grounds stakes were graded – five Grade II (the Risen Star Stakes and Louisiana Derby for 3-year-olds, the Fair Grounds Oaks for 3-year-old fillies, the New Orleans Handicap for older horses and the Mervin H. Muniz Memorial Handicap for older turn horses) and five Grade III (the Lecomte Stakes for 3-year-olds, the Rachel Alexandra Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, the Mineshaft Handicap for older horses and both the Fair Grounds Handicap and the Colonel E.R. Bradley Handicap for older turn horses).

When the North American Graded stakes committee meets to determine grades for 2014, Fair Grounds officials hope the Louisiana Derby will receive a Grade I status in light of the fact that it’s a proven prep for the Triple Crown. “We traditionally have one of the strongest jockey colonies in the industry,” Conner says.

Leading the pack. Fair Grounds favorites led the lists of winning jockeys, trainers and owners at the end of last season, and bettors can look forward to seeing these leaders come on strong when the new season gets going.

Tom Amoss and Steve Asmussen tied for top trainer with 42 wins apiece. Asmussen, with 12 leading trainer titles, recently became the second-leading trainer in history, beating Jack Van Berg’s record. Amoss has 10 leading trainer titles.

Either Amoss or Asmussen has been the leading trainer annually at the Fair Grounds since the 1998-’99 meet, when Al Stall Jr. tied with Amoss.

With 125 wins, Rosie Napravnik nailed top jockey status for the third straight season. Second was James Graham, with 82 wins.

Meanwhile Maggi Moss, an Iowa-based attorney, earned her third straight leading owner title with 19 wins.

But statistics aren’t the only things bettors consider when they put their money down, Conner says. “Customers like certain jockeys for certain reasons,” he says. And, he adds, superstitions also play a role.


Nov. 22’s opening night schedule includes exotic animal racing featuring camels and ostriches – slated for early in the evening to accommodate families.
On Thanksgiving and Derby Day the atmosphere is party-like and women enjoy wearing their most fashionable hats.
Starlight races with live music, food vendor carts and a beer garden help attract  a younger crowd, including those who may never have been to the track.
 

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