With the exception of a few races being taken off the dirt track, all indications are that the opening weekend at the Fair Grounds went off without a hitch.
Track General Manager Howard “H” Withers said he’s optimistic after the first three rounds of races.
“We feel that it’s been a good weekend,” Withers said. “Friday night was a good night, and we want to keep the momentum going. We feel like we’re poised to have a good Thanksgiving and meet.”
Friday marked the first day of races, with the post time of 5 p.m.
The rain expected Saturday spared the second day of racing, waiting for the nighttime. An inch came down on the track, and Withers said with that kind of rain and no stakes races on the grass to worry about, it was better to reschedule the three races planned for the turf to the dirt.
How the turf course would drain was a concern after a new drainage system was installed in the offseason.
“That just happens sometimes,” said Bernard Chatters, president of the Louisiana Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “We just need to see how it looks (Monday).”
Withers said the turf track would be ready for Thursday, when the track is open for the traditional Thanksgiving festivities.
Chatters also owns and trains horses, and he stabled his horses at the Fair Grounds on Sunday morning. He looked around and said he was impressed with the way the facilities looked. What struck him most, though, was the way the staff treated the horsemen and patrons.
Staffing was another point of emphasis in the offseason — both the quantity behind the counters and the quality of the service.
“Everyone I talked to, from the security guards to the concessions, you know, to the backside staff, they were all really great,” Chatters said. “This is what (the Fair Grounds) really needed to get fans coming back here.”
A small crowd was still around Sunday night as the sun went down, two of them transplants from the Ukraine. Atonina Kushnir moved to New Orleans in 2006 and has been coming to the Fair Grounds once or twice a season since.
On Sunday, she brought her son, Michael, who has been in the city for a year and is in officer school for the Marines, for his birthday
“I had nothing else to do today, so we just came out here for fun,” Michael said.
They laughed as they recounted a race Friday night, when the horse Michael picked to win crossed the finish line first sans jockey. (Their laughter was appropriate, with the jockey popping up immediately and walking off the track unscathed.)
As a longtime patron of the Fair Grounds, Antonina hadn’t heard of any of the bad press the track got this offseason. Racing takes the spotlight now.
“I don’t listen any of that,” Antonina said in her strong accent. “I come out here because I love.”