As the drama of Triple Crown contention riveted the nation earlier this month, horseracing’s finest pageantry and traditions shone for all to see.
Around the same time, however, I trekked out to Opelousas for a different read on the sport of kings, a dustier, more down-home rendition that trades some of the grandeur for the arms-length accessibility of people who share a passionate pursuit in their own backyard.
As usual for a Louisiana daytrip, there was good eating all along the way, especially since this particular itinerary cuts through the boudin heartland. More unexpected was a second racing experience to bookend the trip with a display of raw, revving horsepower.
The route and riders
This trip unfolded along U.S. 190, beginning just outside Baton Rouge and continuing about 50 miles west to Opelousas. It’s a route that parallels an old, and still very active, rail line across broad stretches of farmland, through the center of small towns and over bayous and rivers in the Atchafalaya Basin.
It also leads into Louisiana’s horse country, where small ranches are a common sight by the side of the road and horse trailers are frequent travel companions upon it.
Horseracing culture runs deep in this part of Acadiana, dating back to the plantation days. In more modern times, sportswriters around the country have dubbed south Louisiana the “cradle of jockeys” for the number of highly accomplished riders who have sprung from the region.
While some of them, like Calvin Borel and Kent Desormeaux, have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby multiple times, many others working their way up the ladder today race at Evangeline Downs (2235 Cresswell Lane, Opelousas (866) 472-2466), just off U.S. 190 outside downtown Opelousas.
The track is attached to a large, loud slot machine casino. But race days, which are held in the evenings from April through Labor Day, still retain a small town feel.
On a recent Friday evening, people arrived in their work uniforms, in well-weathered Western wear and with kids in tow. All ages lined the rail at the paddock, admiring the horses as they made a slow pre-race circuit, and many bantered casually with the brightly-dressed jockeys in the saddles, as if they were just shooting the breeze with neighbors over the garden gate.
With about 25 minutes between races, there’s time to consider a bet, get a cheap draft beer or a burger from an outdoor grill by a pavilion of picnic tables and stake out a spot to watch the race near the finish line. Seating is minimal, and so is the attendant flair and fanfare. But you can see the whole interplay of the race up close.
The announcer calls the action as the horses depart far across the green vista of the infield.
Kids climb aboard fathers’ shoulders for better views, people cheer and cajole as the horses round the bend, a few celebrate as the top finishers win, place and show and then it’s back to the paddock rail to start the pattern again.
Any journey along this stretch of U.S. 190 can entail a shopping spree of Cajun butcher shop specialties and sampling of hot product right there in your car.
Billy and Ray’s Boudin (904 Short Vine St., Opelousas, (337) 942-9150) on the edge of downtown Opelousas is a humble-looking shack with a proud tradition practiced through two distinct boudin recipes (Billy’s, the more robust original recipe, and Ray’s, a recipe bought from a local competitor). There’s even a drive-through for boudin on the go.
Billy’s has another boudin shop down U.S. 190 in Krotz Springs, the small town by the Atchafalaya River levee that has long been synonymous with this regional sausage. A number of combination gas station/butcher shops here compete for motorists’ attention, and that’s led to something of a boudin war fought with salvos of ever more-customized boudin balls.
Crawfish, chicken and deer varieties are all in the growing arsenal. Kartchner’s Grocery (24562 U.S. 190, Krotz Springs, (337) 566-0529), for instance, has boudin balls mixed with jalapeno and cream cheese.
While these outposts are right along U.S. 190, boudin lovers should consider a short detour into downtown Port Barre to visit Bourque’s Superstore (581 Saizan Ave., Port Barre, (337) 585-6261). You’ll find everything from Dutch ovens to firearms for sale between the grocery aisles here, but also take-home specialties like jalapeno sausage cheese bread, which tastes like a spicy, bready, Cajun quiche.
Ring the makeshift doorbell buzzer taped to the meat counter to order hot boudin, which is oily, very peppery and, to my taste, one of the finest links around.
A Car Lovers’ Carnival
The wide-open spaces along U.S. 190 have also long been home to State Capitol Raceway (11436 U.S. 190, Erwinville; (225) 627-4574).
This rural auto racing complex is a world away from the paddock and horse track of Evangeline Downs, but it does share a similarly casual, accessible approach to its sport.
When I arrived on a recent steamy Friday night, the track was abuzz with vehicles of all descriptions waiting for a chance to test their times on the quarter-mile drag strip, from highly modified sports cars to jacked-up pick-up trucks to motorcycles to ordinary-looking sedans and even a beat-up Honda Civic.
Racers were queued by the dozens and emerged from a prep area for their challenges two by two, often heralded by the ferocious roar of peel outs and the blue-gray plumes of vapor whipping from their tires.
The men and women behind the wheels wore crash helmets, and when the signal tree flashed green they shot down the track like jets off a carrier deck.
Away from the actual track, an ad hoc pageant of other vehicles crisscrossed the grounds. Kids pedaled bikes around in small packs, women in golf carts cruised along sipping from Tervis tumblers, scooters buzzed, and four-wheelers ferried people from point to point.
RVs and trailers were arrayed in small encampments where guys tuned up their race cars and sized up others rumbling past.
The whole scene was like a carnival for car lovers and gear heads, and this weekend, June 27-28, the raceway is planning a bigger show than usual, including drag strip competitors from around the region, fire-shooting jet cars, a classic car show and a fireworks display.
As you’d expect in any carnival atmosphere, this raceway edition has a concession stand with stadium-style food and cold beer. And, as you’d expect here on the prairie, it also serves boudin.
Some Levee Levity: About midway between Krotz Springs and Port Barre, look for a sign pointing to Levee Landing (109 Levee Landing Lane, Port Barre, phone not available). Follow the narrow, gravel Spillway Road for about a mile along the levee top to find what looks like a barroom right out of a Country & Western ballad, with pool tables inside and a covered deck overlooking a broad curve in the bayou. Some customers arrive by boat from nearby camps, and others turn up for burgers on the deck as the sun goes down and the bayou wildlife chirps up.
A Washington wander
From Opelousas, take the winding La. 182 a few miles north to Washington, a small town set among low hills that is a weekend hub for antiques hunting and home to one of the best restaurants in the area.
The Steamboat Warehouse Restaurant (525 N. Main St., Washington, (337) 826-7227) is in a historic warehouse now packed to the rafters with historic artifacts and bric-a-brac.
Have a drink on the patio overlooking the tawny flow of Bayou Courtableau and get first-rate Cajun-style seafood and steaks inside. The roasted quail is especially good.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.