Friday, September 12, 2008

Fair Grounds Race Course: New Orleans Horseracing History

The Fair Grounds Race Course is a Churchill Downs Company located in New Orleans, Louisiana. The course is often referred to as the New Orleans Fair Grounds, but the track has had many more names throughout its history.

The track was opened originally as the Union Race Course in 1852, but was closed in 1857 due to competition from the Metairie Course. The track was renamed in 1859 to the Creole Race Course and the name was changed again in 1863 to the Fair Grounds when racing was conducted during the Civil War. The track was then closed again when Metairie Course reopened after the Civil War. Finally, in 1871 the young members of the Metairie Jockey Club formed the Louisiana Jockey Club and began holding their race meets at the Fair Grounds. In 1872, the first race card was held under the Louisiana Jockey Club.

The Fair Grounds is the third oldest Thoroughbred race track in the United States, just behind Saratoga and Pimlico. The track consists a one mild dirt track and a seven furlong turf course. The turf course was installed in 1981. The track has not had an easy life with racing being banned in New Orleans in 1908 and then returning in 1915. In 1919, the track would suffer when the grandstand burned down, but the racing continued. In 1940, a legislative sanction was given to racing in Louisiana and the track was sold to be turned into a subdivision. However, in 1941 a group of investors saved the track from destruction and racing resumed after World War II.

The track was sold to the Krantz Family in 1990. In 1993, the grandstand was completely destroyed by another fire and racing continued with temporary facilities. Finally, in 1994 a $23 million renovation project began and completed the grandstand and clubhouse for opening on Thanksgiving Day in 1997. The track was purchased by Churchill Downs in 2004. However, the track would be damaged again by Hurricane Katrina and was closed for a year until it was reopened on Thanksgiving Day of 2006.

However, despite its rough life, the track has had several memorable moments. The great mare Pan Zareta and Black Gold, the winner of the 1924 Kentucky Derby were both buried in the infield. Tippity Witchet, the son of Broomstick, ran many of his 266 races at the track. The track is also home to the Louisiana Derby (Grade II), the New Orleans Handicap (Grade II), the Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap (Grade II) and the Fair Ground Oaks (Grade II).

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