Opening Days Past at New Orleans Race Track

Thanksgiving traditionally marks opening day at the Fair Grounds horseracing track in New Orleans. But Hurricane Katrina ripped apart the grandstands and flooded the infield of the nation's third-oldest track. We look back at previous opening days, when ladies donned fancy hats and the serious bettors ate turkey and trimmings in the track cafeteria.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand, and this is DAY TO DAY.

Traditionally, in New Orleans, this wasn't just a day to gather at the dinner table. It was also a day to go to the races. Thanksgiving has marked the opening day of the New Orleans Fairgrounds horse track for generations. It was a social event. People would get dressed up and even eat Thanksgiving dinner in the track's cafeteria. The track was founded in 1852, making it the oldest in the country; that is, until this year. Like much of New Orleans, the track was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. But today we'll take you back to opening day the way it was on Thanksgivings before the hurricane hit.

(Soundbite of people talking)

Unidentified Woman #1: OK, I bet a dollar on a two to win. OK. We had that. I bet the five to five was the favorite. And then I bet the trifecta. I got the numbers 5, 3, 2. But they didn't come out in that order. I should have boxed them.

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, that's a shame. Hello!

(Soundbite of women laughing)

Unidentified Woman #3: Welcome to the Fairgrounds on Thanksgiving Day.

JANICE: Janice(ph).

VIRGIE: Virgie(ph).

Ms. ROSEMARY JURNEGEN(ph): Rosemary Jurnegen.

Unidentified Woman #4: We're friends.

Unidentified Woman #5: Oh. Yes.

Ms. JURNEGEN: We've been doing this since the late '70s.

Unidentified Woman #6: It's a traditional day. It's always the biggest crowd of the year.

(Soundbite of bugle)

Unidentified Woman #7: This is Lily(ph).

Unidentified Woman #8: Lily.

Unidentified Woman #7: Fourteen months, her first time at the tracks. Her dad just taught her about the trifecta.

Unidentified Woman #8: Oh.

Unidentified Woman #7: He's gonna teach me next. Everybody's out having a good time, getting dressed up, enjoying the day, and it's just a different way to do the holiday.

Unidentified Man #1: Let's see, on this race, I think we're going to go with As Always Mimi, because that's my wife's nickname.

Unidentified Man #2: The fillies are moving toward the gate. As Always Mimi next to Miss Megabucks. TV Matinee joins her. Your Barn Or Mine.

Unidentified Woman #9: Horse names today--St. Roch, who won, Cat Patrol...

Unidentified Man #3: Scotty's Not Less(ph).

Unidentified Man #4: Trifecta is where you pick the three horses in order so the first horse, second horse, third horse. Exacta, you pick the first two horses in order. Quiniela, you pick the first two horses in any order, whichever horse comes number one, whichever horse comes number two.

(Soundbite of bell)

Unidentified Man #5: I got to go make my bet.

Unidentified Man #6: Oh, I bet over my head, not with it.

Unidentified Man #7: At outfield 47 ...(unintelligible), just above the east pole, here's Fabuleaux Joy, who now cracks the front. This is (unintelligible), Your Barn Or Mine now moving through, then TV Matinee. They're coming inside the final 16th. Your Pole Or Mine(ph) and Julie Brown on the wire. Fabuleaux Joy ...(unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #7: Jonathan.

Unidentified Woman #10: Are you here with your son?

Unidentified Man #7: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #10: And what's your name?

JONATHAN: Jonathan.

Unidentified Man #7: Got to be here opening day. I always bet to win. Then only one horse can win. One dollar--I don't get too excited.

Unidentified Man #8: This is my first time coming out here on Thanksgiving Day like it is now. Uh-huh. Each one come by, just look at 'em. I don't know anything about horses. That's the way it is when I go fishing. Now they can bite if they want; they don't have to. I get my chair and everything set out and I relax, you know? It's been pretty nice. Oh, I had a nice--went to the cafeteria and had a nice dinner, yeah, turkey dinner.

Unidentified Woman #11: We're serving food. We have our turkey dinner today.

Unidentified Woman #12: Turkey and dressing and yams and green peas.

Unidentified Woman #13: And this is a big family here. So we have to at least serve hundreds.

Unidentified Woman #14: With love. We're preparing it with love.

Mr. ABRAM HIMELSIDE: Abram Himelside(ph). I have my 15-year-old cousin, Evan. He's visiting from Dallas.

EVAN: He asked me out to Thanksgiving dinner, got up and said, `Evan, you want to go to the track?' It was a good surprise.

Mr. HIMELSIDE: The track? There's nothing I don't like about it. It's great because you get to see all the folks you ain't seen, see if they're still alive, they made it through another year. It's kind of like in other places they got the spring thaw. Down here it's like, you know, another year we made it through the long hot summer. The racing season is upon us and, you know, we'll be seeing each other around again all year.

(Soundbite of bugle; track noises)

Unidentified Man #9: Oh, thank you, sir.

BRAND: Today New Orleans' Fairgrounds race track lies in ruins. The music, sounds and voices of last Thanksgiving's opening day came to us from producer Eve Troeh.

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