Know Before You Go: New Orleans and Fair Grounds Race Course

Events / Travel
Racing fans overlook the paddock at historic Fair Grounds Race Course. (Eclipse Sportswire)

I got married on Aug. 29, an arbitrary date to just about anyone who doesn’t live in Louisiana. There, it marks the tragic anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in New Orleans. If Katrina had a silver lining, it’s that it reminded people like my wife and I that New Orleans was still one of America’s treasures. We ultimately chose to honeymoon there, and when the locals learned of our wedding date, they didn’t hold it against us. Instead, they kept buying us drinks.

Such anecdotes are not unique among those who’ve visited the Crescent City. At about 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in October, my wife and I walked into a welcoming neighborhood joint called Mimi’s in The Marigny. It was virtually empty, save for a man at the end of the bar carrying on a boisterous phone conversation with his daughter. The man wore several rings with snakes on them, and sipped nothing but chilled Herradura. When he hung up his phone, he informed us that he was a musician, and had played with the likes of Janis Joplin and Santana. For the time being, he was holding down a residency at a nearby dive bar called the Apple Barrel, and wielded a tiny pistol for protection. We thought he was full of baloney. He wasn’t. His name was Coco Robicheaux, and he was one of New Orleans’ most esteemed “hoodoo” musicians.

We drank for several hours with Coco. At some point, his friend Tony showed up, and encouraged us to visit Vaughan’s, where the equally beloved Kermit Ruffins played every Thursday night (his residency there ceased in 2013, although he still gigs around town, including the Little Gem Saloon on Saturdays). Coco said he was headed that way anyway, so we journeyed down the levee in the back of Tony’s pickup. Upon arriving at Vaughan’s, Coco said he had to look in on someone at another bar and would be right back. He never came back, and we would never see him again. Approximately two years from the day we met him, Coco collapsed and died while holding court at the Apple Barrel, fittingly enough.

Simply put, New Orleans is America’s most magical metropolis, with an inner-city jewel box of a horse track—Fair Grounds—that only enhances its allure.

Main At-tracktions

Operating since 1872, Fair Grounds is the country’s third-oldest racetrack, and with the way it’s shoehorned into a dense, urban neighborhood, it feels like horse racing’s answer to Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. With a large room filled with slot machines, it stands alongside Gulfstream Park as one of America’s highest-profile “racinos.” Like its sister track, Arlington Park (both are now owned by Churchill Downs Inc.), Fair Grounds’ grandstand got a multimillion-dollar upgrade after it mysteriously burned to the ground.

Eclipse Sportswire

While there is a smattering of outdoor bleachers and room at the rail, all of Fair Grounds’ reserved seating is encased in glass, even though its five-month-long live meet occurs during New Orleans’ mild season. But whereas at some tracks—Del Mar comes to mind—admission to such exclusive rungs is only afforded to the shiny of shoe with blazers of blue, Fair Grounds is relaxed—about everything, really. Want to waltz up to the top-floor buffet in a pair of Adidas sneakers and a ball cap, where the well-heeled are washing down their red beans with Abita? No problem; odds are many of them will be dressed just as casually.

Unlike at many tracks, Fair Grounds’ employees seem genuinely happy to make your acquaintance. Maybe that’s just how New Orleanians come off, but at the al fresco Star Guitar Bar—named after a famous Louisiana-bred horse (who won 24 of the 30 races he entered, including 10 at Fair Grounds) and located next to the paddock—the bartender, Michelle, has her own group of regulars, and will pack your Bloody Mary with enough vegetables to make a salad. Also near the paddock are a slew of local vendors slinging regional chow, while at the Clubhouse Grill on the fourth floor, they’ll serve you bread pudding with your corned beef Po’Boy.

As at Gulfstream, Fair Grounds boasts a trio of prep races for Kentucky Derby hopefuls, with the Lecomte and Risen Star preceding the Louisiana Derby.

Where to Drink & Hear Music

The Apple Barrel, where Coco played and died, sits on Frenchmen Street, as do two of the city’s premier music venues, d.b.a. and Snug Harbor. If you want to gulp down hurricanes and collect beads, by all means, head to Bourbon Street. But if you desire instead a snapshot of how electric and eclectic New Orleans can be, Frenchmen’s where it’s at. And if you need to wash your clothes between drinks, Checkpoint Charlie’s is a 24-hour dive bar/laundromat on Esplanade that plays everything from Motörhead to Shabba Ranks and serves shots in plastic cups.

As hovels go, though, Checkpoint Charlie’s has nothing on Brothers III. Painted a garish yellow and hilariously located on swank Magazine Street, Brothers III has a jukebox filled with classic country, and serves cheap domestic beer out of plastic coolers filled with ice. Its ceilings are low and smoke-stained; all told, the decor is reminiscent of your uncle’s rec room. As a quintet of regulars discuss whether some guy’s new girlfriend is better looking than his ex, a young mother chats with her dad and sips a mixed drink while her 3-year-old son dances along to a Willie Nelson song. “A water, please,” hollers grandpa at the bartender. “Somethin’ for the boy!”

Bourbon Street in New Orleans
Bourbon Street in New Orleans (Eclipse Sportswire)

While inundated with tourists, the French Quarter is not without considerable beauty and charm. For anyone seriously interested in the brassy brand of jazz that New Orleans is known for, Preservation Hall is a must, and for those attracted by the notion of chasing down a muffaletta with a milk punch (milk, nutmeg, vanilla extract, and either bourbon or brandy) or Sazerac (cognac and absinthe), Napoleon House is essential. Founded in 1812 and playing only classical music, the high-ceilinged establishment with chipped paint is also known for serving perhaps the country’s most meticulous Pimm’s Cup, a cucumber-garnished British cooler that’s comprised of Pimm’s No. 1 liquor, lemonade, and 7-Up.

Across Gentilly Boulevard from Fair Grounds is the Seahorse Saloon, a simple, spacious spot with a broad assortment of beers. For a more stylized experience, on the other side of Esplanade is Pal’s Lounge, where the bartender was livid about New Orleans’ recent passage of a law banning smoking in bars. He mixed a mean Manhattan, however, and Pal’s has a bathroom plastered with vintage centerfolds and a stereo ad featuring the odd coupling of Billy Preston and Arlo Guthrie.

Where to Eat and Sleep

Located in the French Quarter is Fair Grounds’ sponsor hotel, the Monteleone, and its Carousel Bar, where drinkers actually spin around the bottles. Opened in 1886, the Monteleone is located on Royal Street, home to the equally historic Cornstalk Hotel, where the likes of Elvis Presley and the Clintons have stayed. Across Esplanade in The Marigny is the Royal Street Inn. Co-owned by Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs, it’s a boutique-y affair with a ground-floor lounge, R Bar, that’s become a popular after-hours hangout for local and touring musicians.

Since the airing of the critically acclaimed HBO show which shares its name, Tremé has undergone something of a renaissance, and is the perfect home base for visitors interested in walking to both Fair Grounds and the French Quarter. In order to do so, however, you’ll want to explore Airbnb options, as more traditional guest lodging is lacking in one of America’s oldest African-American neighborhoods.

Hotel Monteleone's Carousel Bar
Hotel Monteleone's Carousel Bar (Courtesy Hotel Monteleone)

Also in Treme is Willie Mae’s Scotch House, which neither serves Scotch (although it did in the ‘30s when it opened) nor houses anymore. Rather, behind a ramshackle exterior lies what many—including the jury responsible for doling out the prestigious James Beard Awards—believe to be America’s best fried chicken. Buoyed somewhat literally by a post-Katrina rebuild and appearances on several nationally televised food programs, Willie Mae’s has become such a juggernaut that it recently opened a second location in New Orleans’ Uptown neighborhood just to meet runaway demand.

Speaking of tourist meccas, Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter is a uniquely NOLA experience that’s worth the wait. The 24-hour, open-air (there’s a roof, thankfully) French Market mainstay is known for two things: café au lait (equal parts chicory-laced coffee and hot milk) and beignets, which are like donuts, only square-shaped and without the holes.

A short walk from Fair Grounds is the intersection of Ponce de Leon and Esplanade, where restaurants like Santa Fe (Mexican) and 1000 Figs (healthy Mediterranean fare, highlighted by the “falafel feast”) provide respite to anyone who’s overindulged on New Orleans ultra-decadent native cuisine. But for those who have a hankering for a garlic oyster Po’Boy and some killer gumbo, Liuzza’s by the Track is one of America’s quintessential trackside restaurants. With Fair Grounds mementos and a television set constantly tuned to TVG, you’re virtually guaranteed to encounter a tableful of trainers grabbing an early lunch or a waitress who moonlights as a hot walker. In a crowded sporting landscape where Thoroughbred racing scraps to salvage but a sliver of the public consciousness, to find an establishment which remains so singularly devoted to the Sport of Kings is a beautiful thing indeed.

Riders Up

Miguel Mena, James Graham, Florent Geroux, and Robby Albarado rank among the track’s most formidable jockeys. Former Fair Grounds leading rider Rosie Napravnik still spends time at the track with her husband, Joe Sharp, who is among the track’s winningest trainers, chasing perennial top dogs Steve Asmussen and Tom Amoss.

For bettors looking for a unique wager involving these elite horsemen (and women), Fair Grounds offers a 50-cent Black Gold 5, where the full jackpot is only paid out when a single person picks each winner in the final five races on a given day.

Tip Sheet

A lot of cities have retro streetcars, but most of them are largely for show. New Orleans’ streetcar lines serve as a legitimate public transportation method for locals looking to get crosstown, and are indispensable for visitors looking for a cheap and easy way to get Uptown from the Quarter.

Fair Grounds is equally multi-dimensional. Back in the 1800s, it hosted bear and bull fights, and since 1972 it has hosted the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (aka Jazz Fest) on its infield, where up to 160,000 attendees per day show up to hear a stunningly diverse array of popular musicians play.

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