Over the last few years I've been fortunate enough to experience race courses around the country and in Europe that I've never had the privilege of attending in the past. A couple of years ago I toured the historic courses of Ascot, Epsom and Newmarket in England. Last spring involved a trip to Pimlico for the Preakness. And this year I'm fortunate enough to spend time in New Orleans visiting the Fair Grounds for the 100th Louisiana Derby.
My first trip out to the Fair Grounds this week involved taking the New Orleans streetcar to City Park and then a short walk from the end of the line to the course. While the initial trip took a lot longer than I intended (there was a wreck on Canal Street that blocked the streetcar tracks), I'm glad I had the opportunity to check out the surrounding neighborhood on foot, rather than just gazing from afar as a cab speed by to the destination.
No matter where you go in the world, most cities have an aspect that differentiates that area from other urban centers of similar size or age. Whether its London's maze-like pattern of streets and Victorian architecture, the imposing size of Manhattan or the majesty of Central Park, the Lake Shore in Chicago or the brownstones that line many of the streets, San Francisco's hills, LA's glitz - a city's character is often defined by its outward appearance.
For me, the character of New Orleans is deeply rooted in the French Creole architecture found prominently throughout the city. And while the historic French Quarter draws in the tourists and party goers, that section of the city is but one part of the greater whole.
As I exited the streetcar at City Park I quickly attempted to get away from the herds of tourists heading to the park or the New Orleans Museum of Art just a short walk away. Not that I'm not a tourist myself but my destination was a much more important location: the track. Prior to exiting the streetcar I knew nothing about the neighborhood that I was about to walk through (known as Mid City); that's probably not the best choice to make when in a town you're not familiar with as sometimes you might end up in places that you don't belong. But as a reasonably traveled individual I felt confident in my ability to navigate these new surroundings.
As I began to walk down Esplenade Avenue past homes built over a century ago I was taken with the pure beauty and age of the neighborhood itself. This was not a "new" development in any way shape or form, and for a kid born and raised in a city that wasn't founded until a little over a century ago, the walk through this area was akin to going back in time. If the French Quarter screams "party" and "excitement", the streets surrounding the Fair Grounds softly speak of a calmer, relaxed lifestyle.
About halfway through my walk to the Fair Grounds I happen upon the Café Degas, named for the notable French impressionist Edgar Degas who lived in the area in the 1872. From there I walked past a number of small cafes and stores and, eventually, the Seahorse Saloon, a popular hangout during the city's annual Jazz Fest celebration.
When I finally walked through the front gate of the Fair Grounds I didn't feel as if I was in the middle of nowhere cut off from the rest of the world, but instead I was simply part of an extension of the neighborhood itself.
The Fair Grounds itself is a modern race course due to a complete rebuild of the grandstand following a fire in the 1990s and additional improvements and construction following damage from Hurricane Katrina. However, the track maintains it's cozy feel with a grandstand much smaller than the massive structures found at Belmont, Santa Anita or Churchill Downs. The paddock, tucked away just to the rear of the main grandstand, is smaller than the paddock at Emerald Downs back home. But the closeness of the setup allows for the die-hards to banter with the jockeys and trainers assistants as the horses make their way to the main track for the post parade.
After the horses left the paddock I found a spot on the rail to watch the first race as the spring sun began to beat down on me. It's 1:00 pm on a Wednesday afternoon which means the majority of the crowd at the track that day are those that take the game most seriously. A couple of gentlemen beside me puff on cigarettes while lamenting that they weren't going to bet the Rosie Napravnik horse in the first race. Rosie won, of course, which brought forth a cavalcade of frustration from the same two men after the race was over.
The rest of the day was spent walking around all corners of the course to experience different viewing points. There is a small seating area outside of the grandstand but most of the seating areas are inside the facility. Unlike many tracks today, the Fair Grounds doesn't have a massive video board in the infield in which to track the horses as they run down the backside. That doesn't really matter, though, because you have the golden voice of track announcer John G. Dooley to guide your imagination through the race. Like the neighborhood that surrounds the Fair Grounds, that's just another feature that takes you back in time.
On Saturday, the Fair Grounds is planning on a major celebration of not only the 100th running of the Louisiana Derby, but a celebration of horse racing in New Orleans. For the first times in almost a century the infield will be open to the public with live music and food trucks from local vendors. And if history is any indication, the Fair Grounds will once again be the site of a uniquely New Orleans party.