A Day at the Races

As the horses crossed the finish line, the nattily dressed young man in the velvet fedora and sports coat went wild. He jumped up and yelled happily to his startled but amused friends and then ran, careening through the crowd in the Fair Grounds Race Course, a betting slip held triumphantly over his head, to the mutuel clerk who could redeem it. All this noisy display sparked interest among the crowd, and many looked the man’s way as he returned from the clerk’s booth, grinning broadly.

“What you won?” asked one bystander.

“Five bucks on the four horse to place!” proclaimed the big winner, who then blended back in among his guffawing friends. Others laughed, shook their heads and got back to the business of the racing form.

The jubilation over such small stakes, the exotic terminology, the impulse to dress up and have fun with friends in a unique setting – everything about this random episode helps illustrate the singular pleasures of a trip to the Fair Grounds and the allure of the horse track even for those without the first clue of how to bet on thoroughbreds.

The Fair Grounds has been part of the New Orleans scene since 1852. There were a few changes in name and ownership along the way, and even a few destructive fires, including the blaze in 1993 that led to today’s modern grandstand. Through it all, there has endured a sense of history and pageantry that sets horseracing here apart from other sports and gambling adventures.

For some, the Fair Grounds is like a second home. For the newcomer or occasional visitor, however, the sprawling acres, the various outdoor and indoor areas, the multi-level, variegated grandstand and the constant, colorful interplay of people, horses and tradition can make the track seem like a different world. Fortunately, insiders and track veterans offer plenty of advice on how to navigate this environment and get the most from a visit.

Pace and Place
The Fair Grounds now distributes booklets for the uninitiated on the rudiments of parimutuel wagering on horse races. But there are many more subtleties that go into the track experience, matters of personal preference, habit and flair that go beyond winning or losing a bet.

“It’s the ambiance of the situation. There are 20 minutes between live events, so everything has time to ferment a bit,” explains Chris Champagne, a local writer who also works as a mutuel clerk at the Fair Grounds, collecting and redeeming wagers. He has described the Fair Grounds as “our Wrigley Field” and he channeled his raffish affection for the place into his two-man-play Win, Place, Show! The material swirls around him each day at work.

“Just walk around and watch the people as they’re watching races or mulling the next race or bragging to their friends. You’ll see every variation of body language known to man,” he says. “And everyone’s seen My Fair Lady so you’ve got a lot of people showing up all dressed up for the day.”

To find the best place to appreciate the race itself, it pays to experiment and move around. While each race is broadcast on a multitude of monitors across the grandstand building, many track regulars say there’s nothing like watching the action in the open air.

“There are so many niches in the place, but the big thing is to decide what kind of visit you want to have,” says Ronnie Virgets, a New Orleans writer and longtime horseracing fanatic. “Are you going there with the idea that it’s just going to be me and this racing form today, to really try to pick winners? Or are you going out more to see friends you only really see together at the track? That’s how it is for a lot of people, they go to the track to get together.”

He recommends taking in a bit of the action at different places. Follow the horses from the sideline as they saunter from their gentle parade in the paddock, where horses and jockeys make slow circuits for the inspection of the crowd, out onto the track and off to the starting line to get a feel for the entire build up to the race. Catching a race at the finish is an indispensable part of the day. But Virgets also suggests watching at least one race from the very beginning where they set up the starting gates. This is the phase of the race he describes as “both the most underappreciated and dangerous,” as the horses are tightly wound and often “asking to run” before they must squeeze into their narrow starting chutes.

Virgets’ own sweet spot is away from the crowd and further down the track where the horses “make the turn for home” and begin the final stretch toward the finish line.

“You can hear the understated urging of the jocks, or hear them yelling at each other. You can actually hear and feel a bit of the dynamic of what’s going on within the race itself,” says Virgets.

Food for Thought
There are plenty of decisions to make within the grandstand itself. While general admission is free, those who want to pony up $5 each gain admission to the Fair Grounds clubhouse, located on the higher levels of the grandstand. Here you’ll find a bird’s eye view of the entire track, or from the other side of the building a panoramic view of the city’s skyline. Some clubhouse regulars swear the Fair Grounds cocktails taste better from this fourth floor perch overlooking the horse paddock below and the treetops, rooflines, church steeples and skyscrapers ahead.

This elevated level is also home to the clubhouse dining room, a fine-dining option at the track that usually requires advance reservations. But the food options across the Fair Grounds are famously superior to the typical arena and stadium fare of other sporting venues. This reputation is earned on the quality of the Fair Grounds’ treatment of New Orleans comfort food – the red beans or white beans and rice, the gumbo, the oyster and artichoke soup and especially the corned beef poor boys – all served from the concession stands, reasonably priced and reliably satisfying. One insider’s tip: the autumn to early spring racing season at the Fair Grounds neatly dovetails with prime Louisiana oyster season, so don’t forget about the open air oyster bar located by the paddock. 

Dreams of winning big might not be the prime reason many people come to the Fair Grounds, but certainly no one places a bet intending to lose. For the casual visitor, there’s a tendency to angle for tips on which horse or jockey might have a good day. Even the driver of the courtesy van cruising the parking lot is accustomed to passengers slyly asking if there’s anything they ought to know about a particular race. 

Experienced handicappers calculate myriad data from the past performance of horses, jockeys and trainers to make their picks. Others try to make a science of watching the body language of the horse or to try to gauge the mood of a jockey during their pre-race circuit around the paddock. In the end however, pro and neophyte alike are at the whim of chance.

“There are 10 horses in the average race, so the odds of picking a winner are not exactly astronomical, and it’s hard to tell when someone wins if they know something or just got lucky,” says Champagne. “There’s more to it than blind, dumb luck, although blind, dumb luck is good too.”

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