The New Orleans Fair Ground Racecourse is a thoroughbred horse racing facility in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. The 184-year-old racecourse was opened in 1838. Currently owned by the Churchill Downs Louisiana Horseracing Company, LLC, the racecourse is the country’s second oldest horse racing site.
The Fair Grounds Racecourse is home to various Grade II and III races, the most prominent of which is the Louisiana Derby, a preparatory race for the Kentucky Derby.
Here is a brief account of the Fair Grounds Racecourse’s history and various facilities.
Fair Grounds Racecourse History
Three prominent individuals, Julius C Branch, Bernard de Marigny, a French-American nobleman and Henry Augustine Tayloe, a famous horse breeder, organised races on the Louisiana racecourse on 10th April 1838. At that time, the racecourse was located on Gentilly Road.
The first race was the Creole Purse with prize money of $1,000, while the second race was the Sweepstakes and had the same prize money. These races were free for horses owned and bred in Louisiana. As the days progressed, there was a proportionate increase in the prize money and the race entrance fee.
The track was closed for some time and resumed races in 1852. It again closed in 1857 due to increasing competition. Its name was changed to Creole racecourse in 1859 and back to Fair Grounds in 1863. When the competitor Metairie closed down during the Civil War, Fair Grounds resumed operations. However, it soon closed down in 1871 when Metairie recommenced operations. The Louisiana Jockey Club had become obsolete by that time.
However, in 1872, some members of the Metairie Jockey Club segregated to restore the Louisiana Jockey Club and resumed races on the Fair Grounds. The first official race was hence conducted on 13th April 1872.
Much like the resilience of the Louisiana people, the Fair Grounds Racecourse has survived the Civil war, World War, ban on racing in New Orleans in 1908, bankruptcy, fire in the grandstand in 1919 and even Hurricane Katrina, and today it is one of the oldest in the country and continues to flourish.
Winnie O’ Connor, one of the finest jockeys, spent most of his career at the Fair Grounds Racecourse. The racecourse has also been home to some of the finest horses of their time, including Pan Zareta (1912-1917), the famous racing mare, and Black Gold, the winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1924. Both the mares are also buried in the track’s infield. The Black Gold handicap and Pan Zareta handicap races are held every year, and the winner jockeys lay a wreath at the burial site of the legendary mares. Other renowned runners include Tippity Witchet and Risen Star.
Fair Grounds Racecourse Facilities
Fair Grounds Racecourse has a one-mile dirt track and a 1,408m oval turf track which was installed in 1981.
The racecourse also features a grandstand and a clubhouse. In earlier days, the building next to the grandstand facility was used for simulcasting. It was turned into a slot-machine gambling facility in September 2007, and a year later, a permanent slot-machine facility was inaugurated.
In 1971, the Fair Grounds Racing Hall of Fame was established. The facility showcases individuals and horses who have played an important role in the history of the racecourse.
When the grandstand and the clubhouse were completely burned down in 1993, a $27 million construction project was launched a year later to build a new grandstand and a clubhouse. The new facility was opened to the public in 1997.
In 2004, Churchill Downs Incorporated acquired ownership of the racetrack. The track underwent restoration after the damage inflicted during Hurricane Katrina and was opened a year later in 2006.
In addition to racing events, the Fair Grounds Racecourse hosts popular musical events and concerts. One of these is the Jazz Fest, an annual event held to celebrate culture and music that draws millions in crowds.
Annual race meetings begin mid-November and continue till late March of the next year. In the earlier days, race events used to begin on a holiday. The racecourse features an equine costume party on Thanksgiving. Patrons turn up in costumes to enjoy the carnival-like ambience of the racecourse.
Major Events at Fair Grounds Racecourse
Fair Grounds Racecourse is home to numerous Grade II and III Stake races. One of the most prominent events is the Louisiana Derby, a Grade II Race. It is a preliminary race for the Kentucky Derby and runs over a distance of 1 3/16 miles and has prize money of $1,000,000.
Other prominent events include Fair Grounds Oaks, New Orleans Handicap, and Risen Star Stakes, previously known as the Louisiana Derby Trial.