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Heart of Louisiana: Fairgrounds

Long before the New Orleans fairgrounds became known as the home of the Jazz Fest, it was hosting horse racing.
Published: Mar. 27, 2022 at 2:12 PM CDT|Updated: Mar. 27, 2022 at 11:15 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Long before the New Orleans fairgrounds became known as the home of the Jazz Fest, it was hosting horse racing. In fact, it’s one of the oldest tracks in the country.

Horses have been racing here at the New Orleans Fairgrounds longer than almost any track in the country. This is its 150th anniversary. It’s the nation’s third oldest race track.

“Fairgrounds was established pretty much right after the civil war. It’s been going strong ever since through fires, hurricanes, natural disasters,” said Jason Boulet, director of racing.

Long before the New Orleans fairgrounds became known as the home of the Jazz Fest, it was...
Long before the New Orleans fairgrounds became known as the home of the Jazz Fest, it was hosting horse racing. In fact, it’s one of the oldest tracks in the country.(Dave McNamara)

Boulet wants folks to know there is more to the fairgrounds than Jazz Fest.

“A good day at the racetrack is just coming out and relaxing and watching great athletes, as far as equine and the jockeys,” said Boulet.

It takes a lot for a business to reach the age of 150. How has this place been able to survive for so long?

“I think the community, the racing community in Louisiana is very strong,” said Boulet. “We have a very strong racing colony of trainers, top trainers jockeys throughout the years. It’s a culture thing for Louisiana.”

For those inclined to wager on a few horses meet Mike Diliberto, a line maker.

“Usually, the favorites win probably 33-34% of the time,” said Diliberto.

He’s been setting the betting line on fairgrounds races for more than 30 years.

“Look at the trainers’ standards, and if you got one of the top 10 trainers training the horse, the odds are they really spot their horse as well. And look at the top 4, 5, 6 jockeys and usually they win in the bulk of the races also,” said Diliberto.

And if you look high above the grandstand, there is a man with binoculars peering out of the window. He is the race track announcer.

“Surveillance, three petes at the fairgrounds meet,” said race announcer John Dooley.

Fast-talking John Dooley does his homework before each race.

“Relentless Dancer surveillance suggested he’s in charge, ready to pounce, ready to pounce, ready to pounce, Hooper Drives the Boat. Thirsty betrayal,” said Dooley.

He color-codes his racing program.

“Suggested purple and black. I’m totally going off the owner’s silk. So every owner has their own set of silks. You associate the name of the horse with the color of the silks the jockey’s wearing for that given owner. And you have sometimes as little as three minutes to memorize up to 12, 14 names and they’re off. Fast start for Hooper Drives the Boat. Good speed. He’s in charge, Relentless Dancer, part of the chasing pack and moving through to where the insider suggested,” Dooley said.

Part of the history here at the fairgrounds is the three white markers you see in the infield.

“There are three horses buried in our infield. We just celebrated Black Gold race. Last week. Black Gold was a winner of the Kentucky Derby,” Boulet said.

“Pan Zareta was an unbelievable horse. I think she won 76 races in her career,” said Diliberto.

And Tenacious, another popular thoroughbred, competed here in the 1950s and sixties. And a few notable people have ties here.

“Frank James, Jesse James’ brother was a betting commissioner here back in the day after the outlaw days and general George Armstrong Custer had a string of horses that he trained as a trainer here,” said Diliberto.

On any given afternoon, you will see horses racing around this track every half hour. Maybe one of them will be the next legend.

The Louisiana Derby was held Saturday, March 26. For more on the fairgrounds, click here.

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