Happy Hour with the Horses at Starlight Racing

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Photo by Ian McNulty

Visiting the horse track means partaking in all the pageantry and tradition of the sport of kings – the pre-race paddock parade of magnificent thoroughbreds, the color and flair of race fans dressed up for the day, the bugler’s call at post time, the go-go dancers grooving on elevated platforms wearing hot pants and brandishing jockey whips. 

All right, perhaps that last item isn’t so traditional, but it is indeed part of the program when the Fair Grounds Race Course stages its Starlight Racing, a series of evening events that continues this Friday, Feb. 10.

Like other horse tracks around the country, the Fair Grounds is courting a younger clientele these days, and Starlight Racing is part of that bid. The historic track could never really be called a staid environment – a winter afternoon spent drinking bloody Marys, eating corned beef po-boys, placing penny-ante bets and soaking in the particularly rich people-watching potential here makes for a pretty great day. But for Starlight Racing the track essentially assumes the ambiance of an extended happy hour, the better to lure in young people who might otherwise only pass through its grandstand en route to the Lagniappe Stage during Jazz Fest.

If my visit to Starlight Racing earlier this year is any indication, the event has been a success, and certainly it proved a different way to spend a fun Friday night. The parking lot was already packed by the time we arrived and made our way to a complex of tents standing between the clubhouse and the turf. This is the Miller Lite Beer Garden, and inside it looked like an open-air nightclub with ranks of bars and food booths from local street food vendors (like the Fry Bar and Crêpes à la Carte). A DJ was spinning tunes and of course there were the aforementioned dancers.

Happy Hour with the Horses at Starlight Racing
Photo by Ian McNulty

All of this had an unimpeded view of the horses as they came around the final turn.

The crowd was young and obviously having a good time, alternately dressed up like it was singles night or embracing the dandyism of track tradition in derby hats, Victorian threads and the occasional set of elbow gloves. Outside the track, bicycles were locked to every rigid vertical surface available, which was perhaps the surest sign that the targeted demographic had turned up for the event.

Inside the track’s multi-level clubhouse, it was mostly business as usual during Starlight Racing, with the in-house food concessions pumping out the gumbo, corned beef and draft beer in the concourses and, higher up at the clubhouse level, tables full of race fans digging into seafood platters and club sandwiches between placing their bets. But there is live music up there for Starlight Racing too, and this Friday the long-running party band the Top Cats will turn one of the concourses into a dance floor.

The beer garden down at the rail level was my favorite aspect of the evening, however, thanks to the way it really transforms the familiar track setting into a different kind of venue. The Friday night vibe was in full effect here, with the added element of thoroughbreds thundering over the turf a few paces away. If you can’t find an icebreaker here, you’re truly stranded. 

Ronnie Virgets, the New Orleans writer, longtime railbird and Fair Grounds habitué, once told me that part of the appeal of the horse track was social. 

“Sometimes you go out there more to see friends than anything else, it’s a place to get together,” he said.

With all the added nightlife trappings of Starlight Racing, you don’t even need to look at a racing form to feel you’ve picked a winner for your Friday night.

Starlight Racing goes from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. and admission is $5, or $10 for access to the clubhouse and the beer garden. The series continues on Feb. 24, March 16 and March 30. Details are here.