Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Fair Grounds

The Fair Grounds Racetrack and Casino in New Orleans, Louisiana offers classic Thoroughbred racing from November through March every year. Last year, they offered a short Quarter Horse meet in August for the first time and it was met with great excitement. This track is the third oldest racing facility in the nation, having opened in 1872. With a track as historic as the Fair Grounds, there are bound to be great stories that have happened here.

One of those stories is that of Black Gold, a game little horse who won the Kentucky Derby, the Louisiana Derby, the Ohio Derby and the Chicago Derby all in his 3rd year… the only horse to win the Derbies in four different states. Black Gold was foaled in 1921, the result of the mating of Black Toney, one of the country's best sires at the time, with Useeit, a mare who was banned from racing when her owner denied a claim for her in a race. Before his death, her owner, Al Hoots, had a dream that she would bear a foal that would win the Kentucky Derby. His wife made sure she was bred to the stallion in question, and Black Gold's story began.

His first race was run at the Fair Grounds racetrack. On January 8, 1923, Black Gold handily won his maiden race under the tutelage of trainer Hanley Webb. In March of 1924, Black Gold easily overcame his competition on the muddy fields of the Louisiana Derby, winning by six lengths. When he won the Kentucky Derby, his owner, Rosa Hoots, became the first Native American woman to have bred and owned a Kentucky Derby winner. He went on an amazing campaign that year in several states, beating many of the top horses of the day. His record of winning four Derbies in four different states stood for decades.

Like his sire, Black Gold was overraced and developed a quarter crack in his hoof. As his abilities waned, it was decided that Black Gold would be retired to stud. Unfortunately, like some of the other top horses of the day, it turned out that he was sterile.

In 1927, Black Gold was once again on the track, but he never made the board in the three starts he made that year. Nevertheless, he refused to give up. While he was not physically in form, his spirit remained undaunted. On January 18, 1928, Black Gold stepped onto the Fair Grounds racetrack for another game try. As he attempted to gain in the stretch, he broke his leg. Running on three legs and a heart, he continued on to the wire. His leg was utterly ruined, and he had to be destroyed.

Black Gold was buried in the infield of the Fair Grounds… the scene of his first win, one of his most magnificent wins, and his final defeat. To this day he rests not far from the sixteenth pole, near the remains of Pan Zareta, his mother's old rival.

To this day, every January the Fair Grounds hosts the Black Gold Stakes. The winning jockey puts flowers on Black Gold's tomb, accompanied by the descendants of Rosa Hoots.

Gulfstream Park

Gulfstream Park
in Hallandale Beach, Florida first opened to the public in 1939. It was only open for four days that year, but it attracted 18,000 people on opening day. Gulfstream opened again in 1944 for a 20 day meet and hasn't missed a season since. This track has seen its share of great horses, including the likes of Swaps, Nashua, Bold Ruler, Kelso, Spectacular Bid and Cigar.

But the single theme that has run through the history of Gulfstream Park is change. By 1946, Gulfstream added the Gulfstream Park Handicap. 1952 not only added the Florida Derby, but construction began on a clubhouse and the grandstand was expanded. As the spectators enjoyed seeing the Swaps set a new world record in 1956 and watching Bold Ruler get defeated by General Duke in 1957, plans were in the works to add a world-class turf track to the facilities. The new track was finished in 1959.

1961 saw the addition of the largest tote board in the world to the track infield. Of course, it wouldn't be considered the world's largest by today's standards, but in 1961, it was very grand. In the 1970s, the changes were more subtle. The Florida Derby became the state's richest race when the purse was raised to $125,000. In 1978, the president of Gulfstream Park, James Donn, Jr., passed away. His son, Doug Donn, was elected as his replacement.

In 1982, renovations were performed on the clubhouse and grandstand. A new domed dining terrace was added known as the Gulfdome, providing a beautiful area to dine. In 1989, Gulfstream hosted the 6th Breeders' Cup as a mini event lasting three days.

In 1990, another change happened when Gulfstream was purchased by Bertram and Diana Firestone, the owners of Calder Race Course. A banner event this year at the track was the final win in William Shoemaker's long, illustrious career as a jockey. 1992 found the Park hosting another Breeders' Cup, which broke the North American record for the amount of money bet in a single day. In 1995 and 1996, Gulfstream saw many of the amazing wins by the highest money making horse in the country, Cigar. He was added to the Park's Garden of Champions upon his retirement, and a lifesize statue was erected in his honor. 1999 saw the last change in ownership for the track, when it was acquired by Magna Entertainment Corporation. Gulfstream was also host to another Breeders' Cup, breaking another wagering record.

As soon as the meet ended in 2004, major renovation was begun at Gulfstream Park. The clubhouse and grandstand were leveled and the main track was enlarged to a mile and an eighth. The turf course was widened, growing from 80 feet to 170 feet. The walking ring was destroyed as well as half the barns and the Garden of Champions. The only original buildings left were the tote board, the administration building and the jockey's room. The 2005 meet was held with tents and temporary buildings. This continued into 2006, since the 2005 hurricane season interfered with construction.

The new grandstand and clubhouse is elegant and includes retail space, restaurants and casinos, including the 1,200 seat restaurant, the Ten Palms, and the Tickets sports bar. A new walking ring surrounded by Mediterranean style architecture has been built. Gulfstream Park has remade itself almost completely to meet the needs of its many visitors.