Racing's ghosts haunt modern Fair Grounds

By JOE BOB BRIGGS  |  June 3, 2003 at 12:44 PM
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NEW ORLEANS, June 3 (UPI) -- The Fair Grounds Race Course is inhabited by so many ghosts and oddities and legends that I can't walk onto the property without being a little awestruck.

Of course the gleaming white clubhouse -- reminiscent of the

1930s, a breezy haven for men in Panama suits and straw boaters --

is not really 131 years old. The track has had a long succession

of grandstands and course layouts as the owners experimented with

Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, pacers, trotters, jumpers,

steeplechase races, quarter horses, and even a brief flirtation

with cavalry races. To give you some idea of the sheer variety of

racing at this track, they have official track records for every

distance between two furlongs and two miles. The Fair Grounds is

the original royal seat of winter racing, third oldest track in

the country, dripping with so much history that real horseplayers

treat it as a place apart.

Actually I think you can even make a case for it being the

nation's oldest track, if you combine its history with its

predecessor, the Union Course, also called the Creole Course,

which had racing at the same location as early as 1852. Saratoga

Springs, normally regarded as the nation's oldest track, didn't

come along until 1864. Pimlico opened in 1870. Churchill Downs is

a spring chicken, debuting in 1875.

This is such an ancient location that the Bobtail Nag, of

"Camptown Races" fame, raced here in 1859. (The horse's real name

was Flora Temple.)

At any rate, you can pick your legend. This is the track

where General George Custer ran a stable of horses at the first

official meet, in 1872. (Grand Duke Alexis of Russia was in

attendance as well.) It's the first track to institute pari-

mutuel betting, in 1873, when the rest of the nation still had

independent bookies chalking odds on blackboards. And when the

Yankees finally went home after Reconstruction, Ulysses S. Grant

stayed behind for the first full season. In the more recent past

century, Al Hirt was the track's bugler -- before he became famous,

of course -- trumpeting the call to the post ten times daily.

(Today the duties are handled by Les Colonello.)

Since New Orleans was always a great horse town and a great

gambling town, the Fair Grounds was the place where the super-

rich met the super-sleazy. John A. Morris, of the Revolutionary

War Morrises, whose filly won the first Belmont Stakes and who

later built the Morris Park track in New York, was a founder of

the Louisiana Jockey Club and always kept a winter stable at the

Fair Grounds. (His descendants were still running horses there

into the 1990s.) But it was also the place where Pat Garrett, of

Billy the Kid fame, worked as a trainer in 1893, and where Frank

James (Jesse's brother) worked for Samuel Hildreth, owner of the

largest stable, during the 1902 season.

Diamond Jim Brady was a regular during the race track wars

of 1906. Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney gambled here between

sessions of beating each other up. Winnie O'Connor, one of the

greatest early jockeys at the Fair Grounds, was once suspended

for discharging a pistol in the jocks quarters. It was that kind

of place.

The Damon Runyon rowdiness has vanished, of course. During

my visit, the track has been taken over by Jazz Fest, largest

concert event in the world, which is a good thing, because Jazz

Fest beverage concessions are what kept the track plugging along

during the dark days after the 1993 fire that destroyed the

grandstand and clubhouse. (It was an electrical fire that started

in the crawl space between the racing office and the jockey's

quarters on the second floor. Through a superhuman effort, the

track was open again 60 days later in temporary facilities, and

the new structure opened in 1997.)

The Krantz family, involved with New Orleans racing for most

of the past 50 years, nursed the track back to health,

orchestrating a lot of innovations like off-track betting (10

locations), simulcast betting, Internet betting, and even phone

betting, but it still lagged behind the other Louisiana tracks

because the state specifically forbade it from having slot


Harrah's New Orleans, the only land-based casino in

Louisiana, cut a deal with the state to have the exclusive right

to slot machines in Orleans Parish. Tracks elsewhere in the state

got the right to their own slot machines five years ago. The

result: their purses ascended, and the Fair Grounds' declined,

with the all too predictable result of horsemen deserting the

track in favor of richer races at Louisiana Downs and Delta


Fortunately for the Fair Grounds, Harrah's also agreed to a

$100 million annual tax which it couldn't pay, leading to two

bankruptcies, and during each bankruptcy Fair Grounds General

Manager Brian Krantz was able to negotiate a few goodies for

himself. Currently he has 700 video poker machines, mostly at his

OTB locations--not such a big deal, since the game is not popular

in Louisiana and the machines are set for bars and taverns: $2

bets, $500 maximum payout. But within about two months, if all

goes according to plan, he'll be able to install 300 Las Vegas-

style slot machines. According to a deal he worked out with

Harrah's, he can add another hundred each year, eventually having

as many as 700 provided Harrah's meets certain revenue goals.

"And we need it," he says. "It was a bummer of a meet."

The recession, added to the stiff competition from slots

tracks, forced Krantz to lower purses this year ($262,000 a day,

compared to $276,000 two years ago), then he lost part of his

simulcast business when Magna purchased the tracks in Maryland

and started broadcasting Calder Race Course instead of the Fair

Grounds. (This means the Fair Grounds lost out on simulcast

betting at both Hollywood Park and Santa Anita this year.)

The Fair Grounds still managed to hold on to its major

stakes races. The biggest one is the Louisiana Derby, with a

purse of $750,000, frequently won by a Kentucky Derby contender.

They have three other Grade 2 races--the Fair Grounds Oaks

($350,000) for fillies, the Explosive Bid Handicap ($700,000) on

the famous turf course, and the New Orleans Handicap ($500,000)--

as well as two Grade 3s: the Silverbulletday Stakes and the Risen

Star Stakes.

Risen Star is, of course, the famous colt who won the

Preakness and the Belmont in 1988, but most of the horses

associated with the Fair Grounds are remembered only in New

Orleans -- for example Pan Zareta, one of the most admired horses

in history, yet little recalled in the rest of the country.

Pan Zareta was the winningest mare on turf (76 victories) in

racing history. Bred in West Texas, she spent most of her career

at the old Terrazas Park track in Juarez, Mexico, where she was

so dominant that she occasionally had to carry up to 146 pounds.

In 1917, after six seasons of racing, she died of pneumonia in

her stall at the Fair Grounds, and because she was so popular,

she was buried along the inner rail by the 16th post, next to a

giant live oak. Unfortunately, the live oak had to be removed

when the turf course was constructed, so Pan Zareta's body is

actually under the racing surface. The grave marker was moved 30

yards to the new infield, though, and the winning jockey in the

Pan Zareta Handicap, held every February, is still expected to

lay flowers beside her tombstone.

Black Gold is the other famous Fair Grounds horse. It is

said that, when Black Gold broke a foreleg in a 1927 race and had

to be destroyed, the entire city went into mourning for two days.

Black Gold was famous for winning four derbys as a three-year-

old: the Louisiana Derby, the Kentucky Derby, the Ohio State

Derby, and the Chicago Derby. (This is before the Triple Crown

was such a big deal.) But he was especially loved at the Fair

Grounds because he had made his debut there, winning his maiden

2-year-old race at three furlongs on January 8, 1923. (How times

have changed. No one today would race a 2-year-old in January,

much less eight days after he becomes eligible to race at all,

and the three-furlong race seems to have disappeared forever. The

Fair Grounds, however, is the last track in America that still

requires schooling races for young horses, every Wednesday


Black Gold's owner, an eccentric Oklahoma oil heiress named

Rosa Hoots, pitched a fit when the Kentucky Derby tried to pay

her with a check. She only accepted cash. (The Derby eventually

complied.) She tried to capitalize on Black Gold's fame by

putting him out to stud when he was still young -- but alas, he had

three years of sex without siring a single foal, so veterinarians

pronounced him sterile. When he returned to racing, he was

heralded everywhere he ran -- but never again won a race. His youth

was gone, and his condition had probably suffered on the stud

farm. He was making a game effort in his final race, the Salome

Purse, when he broke down.

He, too, is buried under the turf course, and his marker is

also adorned with flowers by the victor in the annual Black Gold


The days when the Fair Grounds was the winter haven for the

wealthiest owners in New York are long gone (the Morrises were

the last blueblood East Coast family to race here), but the track

still has that elite cachet. The jocks' room lives with the

ghosts of Johnny Longden and Eddie Arcaro and Willie Shoemaker.

The fancy new corporate suites recall the heyday of the Alfred

Vanderbilt stables, the Walter Chrysler barn, and the King Ranch

horses. It's the track where Triple Crown winner Whirlaway won

the inaugural Louisiana Handicap before a crowd of 20,000.

Fortunately for New Orleans, the Krantz family is more than

aware of that history, and determined to preserve it. Krantz's

mother was involved in racing as early as 1956, when she worked

in the admissions office at the old Jefferson Downs in nearby

Kenner. After that track was destroyed by Hurricane Betsy in

1965, she was the only employee retained for the transition

period, becoming assistant general manager shortly after the

rebuilt track debuted in 1971. A year later she became general

manager, and by 1986 she had parlayed enough stock options so

that she and her son could own a controlling interest.

The 1980s were not good to the horse racing business. First

the IRS eliminated the tax shelters on Thoroughbred investments

that had made the sport so healthy for so long. Then Louisiana

went through the oil bust, when lots of companies left the state.

With neither track doing that well, the Krantzes purchased the

Fair Grounds in 1990, but riverboat gambling was legalized in

1991, causing an immediate 30 percent dropoff in business. By

1992 the Krantzes were shutting down Jefferson Downs to

consolidate purses as best they could. They were just starting to

recover when the fire hit.

All 2,000 barn stalls were full for the latest meet, with

most horses from Texas and Louisiana, and a large contingent from

Kentucky and Illinois. (The two leading stables are those of

Nelson Bunker Hunt, the Dallas oilman, and Merwyn Sher, a St.

Louis grocery-store magnate.) I asked Krantz if he misses the

days when the Vanderbilts and Whitneys and Morrises made the trip

south, but he said it's a different world anyway and they

probably wouldn't like it.

"We do have all that," he says. "The Fair Grounds has the

deep-rooted history and tradition that goes with the city of New

Orleans. We've got that mystique. We have some of the flavor of

Saratoga. We're part of the history of racing. But look at how

the market's changed. We have to appeal to the highest per-capita

horseplayers, and for them it's a numbers game. Some of them run

extremely sophisticated arbitrage systems on computers that can

pour money into the last two betting cycles before the starting

gate opens. The significant bets now are the Pick 3, the Pick 4,

the Superfecta. The core players want all those bets. It's only

the casual bettor who makes win, place and show bets. And, of

course, the people who work directly with the horses -- they'll

single a horse. But everyone else is looking for the big payoff."

In a way, it's almost sacrilegious to turn the Fair Grounds

into a "racino," as they're being called these days, but it's

happening nationwide and it's almost unavoidable. Track owners

realize that slot-machine players and horse bettors are two

separate species, and that the machines are merely a source of

income and not really a way to develop new horseplayers.

"It's true that the slots players and the horse players are

two distinctly separate demographic audiences," says Krantz.

"There's no significant crossover. So you have to insulate them

from each other. If the slot people are comfortable, they'll come

back. We've found that TV and audio race coverage is intrusive

for them, so we don't show the races in the machine gambling

areas. Our mission is to enhance horse racing's fortunes. Slots

are a means to an end. It's a resource that needs to be


Krantz doesn't seem like a superstitious guy, but he's doing

everything he can to restore the Fair Grounds to its past

glories, including riding every year in the Endymion parade at

Mardi Gras. Endymion is the god of fertility and eternal youth,

but at the Fair Grounds the name has an even deeper meaning. A

horse called Endymion won the 1963 New Orleans Handicap.


E-mail Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at or

visit Joe Bob's Web site at Snail-mail:

P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.

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