Here’s a trivia trifecta to test your knowledge of New Orleans:
It’s Thanksgiving Day and you’re eating corned beef and cabbage, not turkey. Where are you?
What stellar steed made the Little Sisters of the Poor a little richer?
Who owned a beloved New Orleans thoroughbred named Cangirod?
Bonus question: Who was the Cat in the hat at the track?
The answers are, in order:
The Fair Grounds race course, where corned beef and cabbage is a specialty of the house. Also, you must have made your reservation early, because Thanksgiving week marks the opening of the racing season and the place is packed.
Risen Star, winner of the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes in 1988. Owners Louie Roussel III and Ronnie Lamarque gave a percentage of the horse’s winnings to the nuns, who had prayed for the victories.
Grocery store founder Joseph Dorignac Jr. Cangirod is Dorignac spelled backwards.
Allen “Black Cat” LaCombe. Among other eccentricities, the longtime Fair Grounds publicist was known for wearing a derby.
Those are a few of the fun facts featured in the latest WYES-TV/Channel 12 documentary, “New Orleans Fair Grounds Memories.” The hour-long program, which premiered Nov. 19, will air again at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Nov. 22 and at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Nov. 27, Thanksgiving Day.
The track opens for racing today with Starlight Racing.
“Horse racing has been part of the history of New Orleans for almost two centuries,” program narrator and producer Peggy Scott Laborde says as “Memories” traces the track’s time line. “The Fair Grounds considers 1872 as its official opening year, making it the third oldest horse racing track in America. But racing took place on the site much earlier.”
Through the years, the site was used also as a Civil War campground, first by Confederate forces, then by Union soldiers. In the 1940s, daredevil air shows were staged there, Laborde says. The Fair Grounds overcame the devastation of a massive fire in December of 1993 and the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina’s winds in August 2005.
These days, a temporary transformation, dating to 1972, occurs each spring.
When the horses move out after the Louisiana Derby ends the racing season, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival moves in, taking over the Fair Grounds at the end of April and beginning of May.
The documentary includes vintage photos and film footage, as well as interviews with a host of folks who share their personal Fair Grounds memories.
Former track owner Bryan Krantz recalls his yearlong search for the perfect purveyor of that signature corned beef and cabbage. Risen Star co-owner Lamarque sings, “When you wish upon a star, just make sure it’s Risen Star.”
Artist and musician George Schmidt reveals his father’s surprisingly successful way to pick a winner: He bet on horses whose names contained a woman’s name. Race horse trainer Francis “June” Melancon tells how having two of his horses win Friday the 13th races cured him of being superstitious about that date.
Evelyn Benoit, owner of Star Guitar (among other race horses), praises the Fair Grounds’ new paddock area, which was relocated and expanded after the 1983 fire to allow more public access. “Of all the race tracks, the paddock area is so close, the fans can get up close and personal with the owner and the horse,” she says.
New Orleans Advocate columnist James Gill describes horse racing at the Fair Grounds as “an exhilarating spectacle.” Race horse trainer Tom Amoss says, “The admission fee is very, very reasonable and prices for food and beverages are reasonable. We put on a great show out there with the horses, there’s no doubt about it.”
And the time for that annual show is approaching as fast as Risen Star on the home stretch.
“New Orleans Fair Grounds Memories” was edited by Larry Roussarie. Also credited are Ashli Richard and Kelsi Schreiber, associate producers; Paul Combel and Lenny Delbert, photographers; and Kevin George, for original music.