Thanksgiving Day in New Orleans means turkey, oyster dressing, and all the other trimmings as we give thanks for our many different blessings. For New Orleanians who are fans of horse racing – or just fans of bloody marys during the day, big hats, and a meal prepared by someone else – Thanksgiving holds an entirely different meaning: opening day at the Fair Grounds!
There has been a horse racing track on the site of the New Orleans Fair Grounds in Gentilly since 1852, but this was not the first location for horse racing in the city. In 1820, a private race track was laid out by M. Francois Livaudais, on his plantation in what is now New Orleans’ Garden District. The first public racetrack was the Eclipse Track, built in 1837, on what is now Audubon Park. The Eclipse was joined by the Metairie Race Course in 1838, and the Union in 1852. With these three tracks on the east bank and the Bingaman on the west bank, New Orleans was one of the major horse racing cities in the United States throughout the 1850s.
While the Union racetrack would outlast its antebellum peers (as the Fair Grounds), the grandest of the city’s racetracks at the time was the Metairie. An exclusive establishment, the Metairie Jockey Club, was built at the racetrack in 1853, and some of the country’s finest horses were brought to Metairie to race. Metairie (along with the other city’s tracks) was closed during the Civil War, but racing there resumed in 1866. Unfortunately, the financial position of the Metairie Jockey Club was never again what it was before the war, and the track declared bankruptcy in 1872. The property was acquired by Charles T. Howard, who was refused membership in the Metairie Jockey Club before the war. Howard kept his promise to one day buy the land, tear down the racetrack, and put a cemetery in its place. Since 1872, that land has indeed been the site of Metairie Cemetery.
Horse racing in Reconstruction New Orleans was dominated by the Louisiana Jockey Club, which took over operations at the Creole Race Track. The Creole was the old Union track in Gentilly, but that name no doubt was not good for marketing in post-war times. The original Louisiana Jockey Club disbanded in 1879, but was reorganized in 1880. The new club made significant investments in the Fair Grounds, including electric lighting, installed there in 1882.
The Fair Grounds was the go-to place for horse racing through the turn of the century, but a competitor arose in 1905. The New Orleans Jockey Club purchased an old dairy farm on land that had once been part of the Allard Plantation, and is now City Park. The track was situated on what is now Tad Gormley Stadium and Roosevelt Mall. With the Fair Grounds and the New Orleans Jockey Club in full swing, anti-gambling opponents were outraged. They won the day in the Louisiana Legislature in 1908, when horse racing was outlawed. This legislation, known as the “Locke Law” was repealed in 1916, and both racetracks were re-organized. By 1920, however, the owners of the Fair Grounds bought out their competitors. Since the Fair Grounds track lost its grandstand to a fire in 1918, the City Park Race Track’s grandstand was dismantled and moved across Bayou St. John to Gentilly.
With the repeal of the Locke Law, the Jefferson Park Race Track was constructed in 1918, in what is now Old Jefferson. The Orleans-Kenner Railroad electric line serviced the location. Jefferson Park and the Fair Grounds both prospered in the 1920s, but fell on hard times during the Great Depression. A syndicate controlled by the owners of Jefferson Park acquired the Fair Grounds in 1934. Jefferson Park was closed, leaving the metro area with just a single racetrack until the 1950s, when Jefferson Downs was opened.
Jefferson Downs was originally located off of Veterans Boulevard in unincorporated Metairie, near the Kenner city line. The racetrack operated in this location until Hurricane Betsey destroyed the track in 1965. In 1971, the owners moved the track further west, in the City of Kenner, right on the lakefront. The original Metairie location eventually became Lafreniere Park. The Krantz family, owners of Jefferson Downs, acquired the Fair Grounds in 1990. They closed Jefferson Downs, converting the Kenner site into a residential subdivision, while still operating an OTB parlor on the site of the track’s clubhouse.
The old City Park Race Track grandstand burned down in a massive fire in 1993. It was re-built and re-opened in 1997. The Fair Grounds endured through Hurricane Katrina, and continues on today, under the ownership of Churchill Downs. So, when you hear “Call to Post” at Da Track, think back on its 160-year heritage!
Edward Branley is the author of Maison Blanche Department Stores, New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, and Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, books in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is a partner in Yatmedia LLC, and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.