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  • Writer's pictureMatt Colville

Fair Grounds Race Course



Photos by Matt Colville, Stadium Journey


Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 4.14

Fair Grounds Race Course 1751 Gentilly Blvd New Orleans, LA 70119


Year Opened: 1837

Capacity: 10,000

 

Road to Kentucky Derby runs through Louisiana

Every year since 1894, with a few breaks in between, the road to the Kentucky Derby has run through New Orleans via the annual Louisiana Derby. Run every year in late March, the Grade II sanctioned race with a purse of $1,000,000 is one of the last major prep races ran before the Kentucky Derby. The self-proclaimed 'Road to the Kentucky Derby' is a series of prep races that begin every year in September, using a points-based system scheduled over 36 races. The series has 14 major races which are part of the Championship Series, run from February through April every year. The horses must gain points to qualify, with the Championship Series races worth more points and having bigger purses – there are important stakes on the line during the Louisiana Derby, as the race garners 100 points and automatically qualifies the horse for the Kentucky Derby, the annual Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May.


The Louisiana Derby is one of the more prestigious races that is not part of horse racing's Triple Crown, and is also one of the oldest stake races, with the 2024 running marking the 110th anniversary of the Louisiana Derby. This annual race takes place at historic Fair Grounds Race Course, where racing began on the site in 1837, making it the second-oldest site for horse racing in the country.


Like the city itself, historic Fair Grounds Race Course has had its share of historic moments, like in 1924 when Black Gold won the Louisiana Derby six weeks before also winning the Kentucky Derby, or in 1988 when the son of Secretariat, Risen Star, took home the Louisiana Derby trophy en route to winning that years’ Belmont and Preakness stakes. Horse racing was held here during the Civil War, and after the war welcomed such names as General Custer, Ulysses S. Grant, and Jesse James, who all owned horses or visited the track. The grounds also hosted boxing matches, and the track hosted a car race here in the 1920s.


But despite the track's good days, there have also been some dark days, such as on Dec 18, 1993, when a 7-alarm fire completely destroyed the grandstand, or in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina caused extensive damage to the facility, shutting down racing for over a year. However, after over 150 years, Fair Grounds Race Course still stands strong today, and is nicknamed "Horse Racing's Winter Capital" due to the number of races run here from November to March.

 

Food & Beverage   4

Part of what makes Louisiana Derby day so special is the expansive food and beverage options – the indoor grandstand on the second level has several stands, while the street level has the majority of the options here. Twin Spires Casino is also located on the property, and houses two restaurants as well as several bars; Gentilly Grill and P.J.'s Coffeehouse are the two restaurants located in the casino, near the main entrance to the track.


The paddocks are the first area you come to when you enter the facility – this is the showcase area for horses before they race, and the area features several food options. Star Guitar Bar is located here, and is named after Louisiana's winningest thoroughbred, Star Guitar; the outdoor bar features several of his saddles, as well as a horse-themed custom guitar on the wall.



Another popular stand near the main entrance to the paddocks is Tailgate Tigers, a non-profit competitive cooking team from LSU that raises funds for childhood cancer illnesses. Louisiana Derby day is their biggest fundraiser of the year, raising over $20,000 annually on this day alone – you'll often find the Tailgate Tigers staff smoking a pig or alligator while a big ol' pot of gumbo cooks nearby.


Upstairs you'll find several more concession stands, such as Italian Stallion offering different kinds of Italian sausage, as well as deep dish pizzas. Another popular stand is Gourmet Shack, offering Creole menu items such as Cajun chicken alfredo, crawfish spinach dip, and crab de la creme. Oaks Grill is also up here offering a full menu of different burgers, with views overlooking the paddocks, but if you want to keep things simple and just order nachos, popcorn, or a hot dog there are five basic concession stands located on the property, while for drinks, Pepsi is the official provider at Fair Grounds Race Course.


Another part that makes the Louisiana Derby so special is the broad selection of alcohol on site – you can find a multitude of different bars set up offering everything from domestic to premium beer. There are also two daiquiri stands set up on the property, as well as a craft beer stand selling beers from local Port Orleans Brewery. But to get the full Louisiana Derby experience you have to try a mint julep; outside on the concourse is High Horse Bar, offering the Derby tradition mint julep. High Horse also serves bloody Mary's and their famous Southern Oaks drink, which is vodka mixed with lemon and cranberry juice.


There are also several food trucks lined up along the final stretch on the outdoor concourse, including Daddy Hot Bird for New Orleans style chicken, Tasty Treat serving soft serve ice cream, and Knee Deep Seafood Company offering their favorite dishes of alligator sausage and Cajun hibachi. It's tempting to get full on food and drinks here; just make sure you save some room for dinner so you can hit up the French Quarter for some of New Orleans' finer restaurants.

 

Atmosphere   5

Even if you know nothing about horse racing, all the prestige and grandeur you would expect at the Kentucky Derby is on display in New Orleans, along with many of the traditions of the Run for the Roses. Mint Juleps, big ornate hats worn by women, a garland of roses awarded to the winner; it's all on display here. The only thing missing is the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home" before the race, but you may hear an old school New Orleans brass band playing instead.


You have three main entrances into Fair Grounds Race Course – you can enter through the casino on the grounds, through the main entrance near the paddocks, or you can enter at street level near the first turn and be right up on the action. The paddocks are where you can get one last look at the horses before placing a bet; it can get kind of cramped in the paddocks, however, as it is also the main gathering area where the horses are presented for display, including a three-story overlook for viewing. I recommend entering at the paddocks, as you can find a ticket office there as well as a Derby store there, where you can find plenty of memorabilia. You are also free to walk down the jockey quarters hallway to view plaques and photos on the wall showing the history of the track; the simulcast booth is also set up in the paddocks, with pregame coverage and expert picks for the day's races.



Fair Grounds Race Course features an enormous four-story grandstand that extends down the final stretch into the first turn. The track itself is a mile long oval facing east and west with a dirt and turf track, approximately 7 furlongs; you are not allowed on the infield during race days. The Louisiana Derby is one of 12 races run on Derby day, run at 1 and 3/16th miles. There is a small grandstand outdoors at street level which features metal bleachers, as well as a concourse separating the track from the grandstand – the concourse can get quite crammed with patrons wanting to be right up on the action as the horses approach the final stretch. The walkway at the far west end of the track features all the pop-up bars and food trucks, as well as a tent hosting a private party sponsored by the New Orleans Pelicans. The first floor of the indoor grandstand and the outside concourse is general admission, while the third and fourth floors of the grandstand are the club access points.

 

Neighborhood   4

Fair Grounds Race Course is located about 3 miles north of the French Quarter in the Fairgrounds neighborhood of the mid-city area. This area is mostly residential, and is not where most of the tourists would venture to if coming to visit, so more than likely you'll come to the track for the day and stay overnight elsewhere in the city, as the area around the track isn't exactly the safest after dark. However, there are a few local spots worth checking out if in town on Derby day – the great thing about Fair Grounds Race Course is you can come and go all day, so you are free to walk around the neighborhoods and then come back and watch the races.


Liuzza's at the Track is about two blocks south of the course. Famous for its BBQ shrimp po’ boys, and voted the best gumbo in New Orleans, it is almost impossible to get a table at Liuzza's during the Louisiana Derby, as it is always packed. However, another popular local spot is Parkway Tavern about a mile south of the track – this local dive bar has been open for over 100 years, and is famous for its “Good Food, Poor Boys” sign above the main entrance. Other popular spots near the course include the French bistro Cafe Degas, which makes a great brunch spot, while across the street to the east on Gentilly Blvd is Seahorse Salon, which makes for a popular spot to grab a cold beer in between races. Across the street to the south is Santa Fe Restaurant, which makes a great spot to grab a margarita, and is a popular post-race hangout for the jockeys and horse owners.


Another popular place to visit nearby is City Park; the 20th most visited public park in the U.S. is located a stone's throw away from Fair Grounds Race Course, over the scenic Bayou St. John. City Park makes for a great stroll and includes countless museums and walking trails. Also make sure to visit Cafe du Monde in City Park, which is always less packed than the more famous French Quarter location.


And of course, the French Quarter is where you can find plenty of additional attractions that New Orleans is known for. The French Quarter also has plenty of hotels to choose from including historic Hotel Monteleone, built in 1886, which remains the official host hotel of the Louisiana Derby. This hotel is famous for its rotating carousel bar, which I recommend checking out if in the city.

 

Fans   5

Derby Day at Fair Grounds Race Course attracts a wide range of different patrons – the grandstands have seating for about 10,000 people, and you'll find another 5,000 or so patrons just walking the outdoor concourse or standing in the paddocks. You'll also find the regulars who come to the track almost every weekend to bet on horses, so they usually know their stuff. The facility has over 200 available kiosks for you to place bets, but the lines back up substantially the closer to post time of the Louisiana Derby itself, around 5:30 pm. The track has electronic kiosks, or you can place your bet with a bookie who will help explain the process if you are not familiar with wagering on horse races. Fair Grounds Race Course runs 12 races on Derby Day, with races every hour beginning at noon. A lot of the horses running in the earlier races are local horses, so the regulars may be familiar with some of them. Former NFL quarterback Jake Delhomme owns some of the horses racing earlier in the day, so Saints fans at the track may want to watch his horses. The Tom Benson Stakes, named after the late Saints owner, is also a popular race run earlier in the afternoon, and his wife Gayle is usually on hand to deliver the trophy to the winning jockey.


You'll also get a lot of the preppy college aged folks dressed in different suits – picture a college fraternity party and that's the kind of preppy vibe you can get here. I did see a few kids, but for the most part this is not an event that caters to families. As mentioned earlier the theme at the Louisiana Derby is to dress nice and go over the top, and you'll find a lot of that here with the fancy hats and dresses worn by the ladies, while a lot of the men are decked out in flashy and outlandish suits with bow ties and fedoras.


Cigar smoking is about as common here as people drinking, and they even have cigars for sale at the front desk at the main entrance, should you forget to bring yours. But the great thing about attending the Louisiana Derby is that even if you know nothing about horse racing, you are bound to have a good time. Track announcer John G. Dooley does an excellent job giving the play-by-play of the action on the track; he has been the track announcer here for 20 years. When the horses go onto the backstretch after turn 2 you can no longer can see the action from the grandstands, so it is up to you to visualize the horses based on John Dooley providing the play-by-play, until the horses get to the final stretch. When the horses come back into view on that final stretch, however, it can get quite exciting, with Dooley providing his thrilling play-by-play over the PA system – you’ll get to see why this is called the fastest 3 minutes in sports.


 

Access   3

Getting to Fair Grounds Race Course shouldn't be bad depending on which direction you are coming from; if coming from out of town the track is conveniently located near the I-10 and I-610 interchange, the two main interstates into town. From I-610 take Exit 2C onto Paris Ave, then take the first right onto Gentilly Blvd, and you can't miss the facility about a mile south after exiting the interstate. If you are coming from the French Quarter or the Central Business District, it might be a little more difficult if you are not familiar with the rhythm of the city. New Orleans doesn't exactly have the nicest roads, and you'll be navigating side roads that can go from pleasant to scary really quick, so the best way to get here from the Quarter is by Uber or Lyft.


There is gated and secured parking for over 10,000 cars on property on the south and east sides of the track. On a regular race day this shouldn't be a problem, but on Derby Day the parking lot fills up quick, so I recommend getting here as early as possible – the gates open at 11 am and the first post time is at noon.  Unfortunately, there are no public lots around the grounds, so if you don't get here early your only option is parking on the street. You may get lucky and find some street parking on Ponce De Leon Street, a couple of blocks south of Fair Grounds Race Course, and you may also find people who live on the streets offering paid parking in their yards.


Once inside the venue, the earlier you arrive the better chance you'll have of getting a good view right up at the finish line. The Louisiana Derby is run every year around 5:30 pm, so around 3 or 4 it starts to get pretty crammed, with people flooding the paddocks and attendees walking shoulder to shoulder on the outdoor walkway. The betting lines and kiosks also back up around late afternoon as well – the earlier races are a little more laid back, however, making a great time to get a bookie to help you place a wager on a horse if you are unfamiliar with the process.

 

Return on Investment   4

Tickets start at $10 for general admission, which includes access to the outdoor concourse and indoor grandstand on the second level, while $25 gets you access to the club level on the third and fourth floors of the covered grandstand. The club levels feature more betting areas, slot machines, and several sit-down dining options.



You cannot find a better return on investment than attending the Louisiana Derby, as you are guaranteed to see at least several horses that will race in the Kentucky Derby. I also recommend just coming for the experience of attending a major horse race – though it's the fastest three minutes in sports, the events and festivities, combined with the spirit and atmosphere of New Orleans, make this an all-day affair.

 

Extras   4

One extra for all the historical figures who visited this track, which is almost as old as the city itself. From General Custer, who owned a stable of horses here shortly before he was killed at the Battle of Little Bighorn, to Ulysses S. Grant, who was a frequent attendee during the spring races of 1880, as well as the outlaw Jesse James, a frequent bettor at the track when his brother Frank was Commissioner of Gambling here. The Track has changed substantially over the last 150 years, but if you want to see a part of the track that hasn’t changed, check out the two twin spires, which were built in 1860, flanking the Gentilly Street entrance. This entrance is just north of the main entrance, and though it is currently closed, it is only about a five-minute walk around the track to get to the gate.


Another extra for the three horses buried in the infield at Fair Grounds Race Course – perhaps the most famous horse to race here was Black Gold, who won the 1924 Louisiana Derby en route to winning the 50th running of the Kentucky Derby a couple of weeks later. Black Gold collapsed on this track in 1928, and was euthanized and buried here; Black Gold had a fitting name for a city synonymous with the Saints, and the horse also had a movie based on his life, as well as a book.


The horse buried next to Black Gold is Pan Zareta; nicknamed Queen of the Turf, she won 76 races throughout her career, but contracted pneumonia and died in her stall on Christmas Day 1918. The Pan Zareta Stakes is run at Fair Grounds Race Course every year on Thanksgiving weekend, and the winner of the Stakes places a wreath on Pan Zareta’s grave. The third horse buried here is the local horse Tenacious, a popular fixture at the track in the 1960s.


Another extra for the events the facility hosts throughout the year – as the sports’ Winter Capital you can expect to find horse racing at the track every weekend here, starting with the Thanksgiving Day Classic up until the Louisiana Derby. The Gun Runner Stakes are held Christmas weekend, the Lecomte Stakes in January, and the Risen Star Stakes in February, all of which are prep races with qualifying points towards the Kentucky Derby. Fair Grounds Race Course also holds the Exotic Animal Races twice a year, where you can bet on camel, zebra, and ostrich races; the Weiner dog races are also a hot ticket each year as well.


And of course, an extra for Fair Grounds Race Course’s biggest event every year, and it has nothing to do with horse racing. Every year since 1970, as soon as racing season ends, the grounds are transformed into the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, better known as JazzFest, which takes place for two weekends every year at the end of April. One of the most famous music festivals in the world, the event attracts over 450,000 attendees and has attracted some of the biggest name in music – The Rolling Stones, Foo Fighters, Christ Stapleton, and Widespread Panic are just some of the names playing at this year’s festival.

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