It had been 17 years since I last visited Fair Grounds Race Course. When Eric Halstrom, former VP of racing at Canterbury, invited us to spend a long weekend at his new race palace in New Orleans where he has a similar position, Dark Star and I jumped at the opportunity.
I was asked to assist Lenny Vangilder, Director of Publicity and Simulcasting, with his “Big Easy Bucks” handicapping tournament on March 21. With a $3,500 total entry fee the field was going to be compact but would draw some top contest players in pursuit of NHC Tour points as well as a great opportunity to win one of three spots in the 2010 NHC. A total of 29 entries played in the contest. The format required a minimum $300 ‘real money’ wager in each of 10 Fair Grounds races Some heavy hitters signed-on including former NHC champs Stan Bavlish and Judy Wagner; Ross Gallo, second in the ’09 Tour; Gwyn Houston; Ricky Zimmer; and Mitch Schuman. When the dust settled, three Louisiana residents took the top three spots. This was the first time Mr. Vangilder tried this format. He ran a great show and the event is sure to grow.
The old Fair Grounds grandstand was destroyed in a fire in the mid 90s. The new building is magnificent: five floors with excellent sightlines of the track and the paddock. Slot machines were added to the gaming options recently and as a result purses soared. It appears that Fair Grounds, a Churchill Downs Inc. property, has positioned itself to become a major force on the winter simulcast menu. They have, day in and day out, offered full and competitive fields. The turf course gets a lot of use and according to one jockey it is as good as it has ever been.
There are several things that make a track worth visiting. A friendly and knowledgeable staff is one. Maybe it was just ingrained southern hospitality, but it sure seemed that everyone in the building treated customers with respect.
The track itself is just a five-minute cab ride from the French Quarter. Signs of the devastation caused by Katrina are still evident. Many vacant houses, marked with the X of the rescue crews, are still visible in the neighborhood surrounding the track.
No matter where we were in town, if we had the Racing Form in hand (and when didn’t we?) someone was sure to ask if we liked anything. That rarely happens in the Twin Cities and I take my past performances EVERYWHERE. Made me feel as though I was amongst friends.
If you haven’t visited Fair Grounds, add it to your list of must-see tracks. The afternoon racing schedule provides ample time to enjoy the nightlife in a city brimming with culture and great food. Try the Hotel Monteleone if you are looking for top-shelf accommodations. And be sure to say hello to Demitrious if you stop by the café for breakfast. Ask him about Sharon Stone…….