Racing Returns to New Orleans in Fine Style

By Brett Martel
AP Sports Writer

They hauled off soil tainted by Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters and rebuilt a grandstand roof ripped free by the storm's winds.

After more than a year of renovations, costing about $16 million, a Thanksgiving tradition--horseracing--returned to New Orleans on Thursday (Nov. 23).

The annual winter meet has started on Thanksgiving Day in all but a few years since 1934. Until last year, when Katrina forced the Fair Grounds to move its season to Louisiana Downs near Shreveport, people like 16-year-old Joe Talamo had spent nearly every Thanksgiving in memory at the venerable New Orleans track, where live oak trees, hundreds of years old, grace the infield.

Talamo, who grew up in suburban Marrero and is now an apprentice jockey, won the first post-Katrina race under a clear blue sky and in front of a swelling crowd.

He was aboard Clouds on the Walk, who went off at odds of a little more than 2-1. Talamo broke with the front three horses and pulled away at end of the mile, 40-yard race.

"Ooh, when I knew I won the race, I mean, man, it was indescribable, you know?" Talamo said, his voice cracking with emotion. "We've been coming here ever since I was a little kid on Thanksgiving Day, and to win the opening race, it feels really good."

The winning trainer, 73-year-old Larry Robideaux Jr., also is a Louisiana native. He has been running horses at the Fair Grounds since 1960. He last won an opening race in 1968.

"You never forget those ... and to come back and win the first race here since Katrina, that's really special," he said. "Absolutely, I wanted to win the first race back. I've raced around the country and it's more meaningful to win a race here than any other race track I've been to."

Much as with the New Orleans Saints' return to the Louisiana Superdome in late September, thousands flocked to the track simply to be part of the rebirth of what had long ago become a quintessential New Orleans experience.

"I used to come here as a child. We always came Thanksgiving Day, and we come as a family," said Patsy Rink, who had 13 impeccably dressed grandchildren and several other relatives feasting with her. "We're just thrilled to be back. I'm looking forward to seeing all my friends. It looks great."

About 1,200 dining spaces sold out in about 35 minutes when they became available Nov. 6.

Thousands more spectators--from hard-core types, losing themselves in the racing form, to gatherings of sharply dressed socialites sipping bloody marys--meandered from the grandstand to the flower-laden paddock. The smell of fried turkey, a Louisiana holiday tradition, wafted in the air.

Crooner and actor Harry Connick Jr. was there with his dad, a retired Orleans Parish District Attorney. Carolina Panthers quarterback and Louisiana native Jake Delhomme was listed as the owner of a horse named Seventy Two Reno in one of the 10 races. Delhomme's father, Jerry Delhomme, was the trainer of the horse, which placed fourth.

Rink said she expected a packed house. "Without a doubt, because people from New Orleans love the track. It's part of us. They love it."

The day had a somber beginning. The announcer asked for a moment of silence--and some teared up--for the 1,464 Louisiana residents known to have died because of Katrina.

Then the festivities turned upbeat, as popular local jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins played the call to post before being joined by Fair Grounds' bugle player Les Colonello for a rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In."

With the opening of its 81-day Thoroughbred meet, the Fair Grounds hopes to resume its place as a major winter racing center. It's a local sports tradition that dates to the late 19th century.

The Fair Grounds is the nation's third-oldest track--only Saratoga and Pimlico have been racing longer.

A year ago, the track's owner, Churchill Downs Inc., still was trying to sort out storm damage. The roof largely was torn off the grandstand. Although Katrina floodwaters did not penetrate the main building, they heavily damaged the backstretch area of stables and living quarters and contaminated the dirt and turf tracks with salt.

There was a Fair Grounds meet, of sorts, last season. Instead of the planned 83-day meeting in New Orleans, 37 racing days were held far to the northwest at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City. The track's trademark 3-year-old races, the Louisiana Derby and the Fair Grounds Oaks, major preps for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, were canceled.

This year's meet will include a record $7.7 million in stakes purses and a record 10 graded stakes, track officials say.

The track's showcase race, the $600,000 Louisiana Derby (gr. II), will be run March 10 on a card with five stakes with purses totaling $2.1 million. The track's other grade II races--the Fair Grounds Oaks, the Mervin Muniz Memorial Handicap, and the New Orleans Handicap--also will be run that day.

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The Associated Press

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