Aaaand they’re off: The birth of the New Orleans Fair Grounds
While horse racing had taken place on the site at least since 1852, the first official call to post at Fair Grounds happened on April 13, 1872. It was a significant moment in local horse-racing history. The advent of regular horse racing under the auspices of the Louisiana Jockey Club marked the start of a new era of stability that has made the Fair Grounds one of the premiere horse racing venues in the United States for parts of three centuries.
Though the Fair Grounds has become internationally known to an eclectic music audience as the site of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival every spring, it’s still a popular destination for local horse-racing fans during the eagerly anticipated meet from November to April.
- There’s some debate as to what should be considered the official birth date of the Fair Grounds. The first track on the site was named the Union Course and was laid in 1852. The first thoroughbred meet at the track came a year later. By 1859, it began being known as the Creole Course. Although Fair Grounds officials peg the track’s “birth” to the introduction of Louisiana Jockey Club races there in 1872, it was referred to in print as the Fair Grounds as early as 1865.
- The Fair Grounds are considered home to the second-oldest horse track still in operation in the United States, after Freehold Raceway in New Jersey, which has hosted races since the 1830s. It is followed by New York’s Saratoga Race Course, which opened in 1863.
- Popular use of the name “Fair Grounds” can be traced to 1859, when the site hosted the Mechanics and Agricultural Fair. It was then the that the public started referring to the track as the Fair Grounds. The name stuck.
- Horses aren’t the only things to race at the Fair Grounds. So have motorcycles, ostriches, zebras and — in an always-popular event — dachshunds. In 1911, it was the landing site for an early “flying machine.”
- When longtime handicapper and track publicist Allen “Black Cat” LaCombe — a legendary New Orleans character — died in 1989, Fair Grounds officials honored his last request: to have his casket driven around the one-mile track. When it crossed the finish line, the track bugler played “Call to the Post” and “Taps.”
- Another famous Fair Grounds story involves Grand Wizard, the winner of the track’s 1960 Thanksgiving Day Handicap. After the race, Grand Wizard escaped from his stable and made a gallop for the French Quarter. A group of teens eventually collared him at Claiborne Avenue and Lafitte Street and walked him to a nearby police station.
- The Fair Grounds’ colorful history includes visits from luminaries such as Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who visited as a horse owner in 1872, four years before he and his men were killed at Little Big Horn; Ulysses S. Grant, who attended the spring meeting in 1880, three years after completing his time as the country’s 18th president; Pat Garrett, the sheriff who killed Billy the Kid, who was a horse owner and raced a stable at the Fair Grounds in 1893; and Frank James, brother of outlaw Jesse James and a betting commissioner in the early 1900s.
- In 1861 some 3,000 Confederate troops assembled on the 400-acre site that later became known as the Fair Grounds and converted it into a military encampment known as Camp Walker.
- The Fair Grounds site was leased throughout the Civil War by several promoters for boxing matches, baseball games, bull and bear fights, as well as thoroughbred, harness, quarter horse, and cavalry races.
- Risen Star, a son of Secretariat who was owned by New Orleans car dealer Ronnie Lamarque and former Fair Grounds owner Louie Roussel III, raced regularly at the Fair Grounds and won the Louisiana Derby before making history with victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1988.
The Fair Grounds has proven to be as tenacious a survivor as New Orleans itself, having overcome grandstand fires in 1918 and 1993, bankruptcy in 2004 and damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Like the Crescent City itself, the track has modernized — with the addition of slots, off-track betting and video poker — while maintaining its historical charm.