The weather was gorgeous, the crowd was as electric as it was an eclectic mix.
And a 10-race card was topped off by a feature, the Thanksgiving Handicap, in which Control Stake, trained by New Orleanian Tom Amoss, took an impressive wire-to-wire victory in beating a field headed by favorite Clearly Now.
Although the Fair Grounds’ 2015 racing season opened Nov. 19, Thanksgiving Day historically marks the meets’ beginning. The track didn’t provide attendance, but the place was packed, from the grandstand to the rail.
The atmosphere made the victory seem like an even bigger win.
“Going into the race, I felt the was making the lead clear of the other horses, because my horse’s confidence gets very big when he’s on the lead by himself,” Amoss said. “It really didn’t work out that way, so I can’t say I had a lot of confidence turning for home.
“But (Control Stake) showed a tremendous amount of guts, and Colby Hernandez showed why he’s going to be one of the next big riders to come from Louisiana. He really made this horse finish on the end. That’s what a rider gets paid to do.”
Hernandez said he took the lead from the start as planned with Control Stake, a 3-year-old going against more mature horses. Control Stake held on as Officer Griffin, the six horse, and Clearly Now, the one horse, closed at the finish line in the $60,000 race.
“Tom said ‘Just let him be fast, let him ride,” Hernandez said. “He broke strong, and we just took it from there. All the way down the lane, he kept diggin’ in, diggin’ in. He wasn’t going to let a horse pass him today.”
Amoss seemed just as excited about the Thanksgiving crowd.
“I’ve been a trainer since 1988, and this phenomenon that’s happening at the track, these young people when they dress up, it’s almost a throwback in time, and they really look the part of going to the racetrack. I think it’s fantastic.”
The atmosphere seemed to be part Easter, part Mardi Gras and part Jazz Fest. Patrons’ dress ranged from fashionably chic to casual sharp and party-ish to flip-flop-and-shorts beachcomber and costumes like a squirrel and a wolf.
Women’s hats, though, were all the rage, some even with veils. One woman, who had a peacock-type plume, corrected a passerby, saying she didn’t have a hat but rather “a head piece.”
They were there easily an hour before the 11 a.m. post time — usually it’s at 1:30 p.m. — drinks in hand. All said it’s all about Thanksgiving.
The casual fan was there in force. Many, such as Paul Lappin and Jessica Brown, are originally from places such as the California Bay Area and the East Coast who are now New Orleans transplants. They enjoy getting into a local tradition.
“This is my first time here, but it’s just a nice thing to do, right?” said Lappin, attired in suit, tie and coat with a dapper hat. “Get dressed up, be fancy for a day, not have to clean up everything at the house after a Thanksgiving.”
Brown, a pastry chef, is from Portland, Maine, but has lived in New Orleans for 12 years. She was a railbird Thursday, watching the action up close.
“I want to smell the horses,” she said. “It’s usually less crowded, but since the weather’s so nice, everybody’s out early.”
She didn’t stay for the big race.
“We just have a few drinks then go home and cook.”
Matthew Hodge said he lived in New Orleans in the 1990s, moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, and recently moved back to New Orleans. He said there’s a big track in Albany, Calif., Golden Gate Fields. His mother is from Kentucky, he said, which is race country. However, to Hodge, there’s nothing like the Fair Grounds, a winter track, on Thanksgiving Day.
“Coming here on Thanksgiving Day, it’s kind of an event,” he said. “I’ve been to tracks across the country. I think this is an original tradition that’s from here. The climate has a lot to do with it, but people really get into it and have a great time.”
All ages were represented. Elizabeth Chan, an 18-year-old Tulane student, thought it just would make for a good family outing. She was joined by sister Victoria, 13, and cousin Kelly Li, 14, who is from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. More family members were on the way, Chan said.
“We just thought it would be a good way to hang out as like family,” she said.
Said Victoria: “I just thought it would be interesting to watch.”