The spectacle at the Fair Grounds in the old days must have been beautiful to behold. The aristocracy of New Orleans-a gay mixture of French, Spanish, Creole and American-wheeled down avenues of live oaks in barouches and tallyhos on their way to the races. The best Thoroughbreds in America were summoned to the post by plantation bells (the predecessor of the bugle), but even the presence of the leading horses and foremost jockeys didn't—for years anyway—alter the tradition that going to the races in Louisiana was a happy social custom. So overcome, in fact, was the racing reporter for the old New Orleans Picayune one fine spring day in 1873 that he described with ecstasy the scene at what is today the Fair Grounds racecourse: "The grandstand was a picture of unusual beauty, especially the dress circle division, where silks, satins, new bonnets and their attendants were intermingled in lovely profusion...and the man who could walk along the front way and cast a glance at the fair faces in the west end of the grand pavilion without feeling that he was in the land of the blessed and the home of the prettiest women on earth ought to be ruled off the course...."
Going to the races in New Orleans is still considered a gay social event and, on the final Saturday, as the Fair Grounds last week wound up its long 83-day meeting, there were even more pretty women with fair faces than a visitor would have found 84 years ago. But there was a certain amount of disappointment, too, for those in the big crowd who hoped to watch the local favorites show their superiority. The cause of it all was a visiting colt named Federal Hill, who had just flown in from Hialeah and proceeded to run off with the $49,100 Louisiana Derby for 3-year-olds. Racegoers (18,468 of them) made Beauguerre and Shan Pac—the latter on a six-race win streak—the favorites in this mile-and-a-furlong run, but from the minute the gates opened it was Federal Hill all the way, carrying top weight of 123 pounds to a length-and-a-half victory over Shan Pac (114 pounds) in 1:49⅗ which equals the Fair Grounds' record. Owner Clifford Lussky, a paint manufacturer from Louisville, has nominated Federal Hill to all the major 3-year-old classics, but the brown son of Cosmic Bomb just doesn't look as though he is capable of handling a real distance. In the Flamingo he was beaten 17 lengths by Bold Ruler, and in the Louisiana Derby he was looking for a chair at the finish, as the saying goes. There are no resting chairs an eighth of a mile from the finish of the Kentucky Derby.
To the racing fans of New Orleans, the minor and temporary disappointment of watching their Derby go to an outsider was as nothing compared to their more permanent racing troubles. Nowadays the Fair Grounds—like tracks in so many other states—is involved in a grim struggle for survival against tax-hungry city and state politicians, and its future is as uncertain as that of any track anywhere.
"We don't like to be subject to the whim of elections every few years," says General Manager Gar Moore, who would like nothing better than to schedule the erection of a new double-decked grandstand and an expanded parking area. "We aren't issued our racing dates until two months before our Thanksgiving opening. With this sort of insecurity, how can you plan to spend millions of dollars on improvements when you don't know from one year to the next if you'll be operating—or for how long?"
No matter what happens, the Fair Grounds can look back on 84 years of organized racing which have contributed some historic moments to U.S. turf history and have always provided a lot of fun.
There was the time, for instance, at the 1872 opening meeting that the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia had such a wow of an afternoon at the Louisiana Jockey Club, where, so the report goes, the champagne flowed like water, that His Highness hastened to cancel an evening appearance at the Academy of Music. On another liquid occasion a horse named Carter was said to have been stimulated by a full quart of whisky. It isn't clear just how much of the whisky Carter polished off, but the record shows that his jockey, after "unruly behavior at the post," fell off.
Today, Fair Grounds devotees still enjoy such stories of the good old days almost as much as they do their horse racing. The future may be uncertain for them, but the past is golden.
When the race, the grueling mile-and-three-quarter San Juan Capistrano on the rain-soaked grass at Santa Anita, was over, Trainer Charlie Whittingham was ready to award his winning 4-year-old Corn Husker more than the victor's blanket of red and white carnations. "This horse, if he puts on another hundred pounds, could become another Swaps," he proclaimed gravely.
Even if Corn Husker is not precisely another Swaps, he at least demonstrated Saturday that he is the undisputed champion of this year's Santa Anita meeting. It was his fourth win of the season and was made under conditions that might have unnerved a ferryboat captain. The track was alternately drenched with cloudbursts and thunderstorms from a wild Pacific.
The race also set to rest the surmise that Corn Husker swept the $100,000 Handicap two weeks ago only because he got in the gate with a feathery 105 pounds. He had to carry a respectable 116 for the Capistrano and, although he beat Maturity winner Spinney by only a head, he had nonetheless humbled the best colts in the West, plus six foreign-breds—three from the Argentine, two from England and one from France.
Corn Husker, as usual, was greeted fondly in the winner's circle by Owner Liz Whitney Dunn, who treats horses as pets, not breadwinners, albeit they have won her $288,750 this year. Liz busily wiped her horse's mouth of mud and, when someone asked her why she didn't repeat the favor for Jockey Eddie Arcaro, who was at least as spattered, she snapped sweetly: "Eddie can wipe his own mouth."
Afterwards, Arcaro was more guarded than Charlie Whittingham in his praise of Corn Husker: "He stopped running, turning for home," said Eddie, "but then he started running again. He might be a good one, at that."