Everything You Need To Know About Evangeline Downs

Posted on May 16, 2022

Just in case you need a reminder that you’re near Cajun Country, where zydeco music roars and spice on your food is mandatory, Evangeline Downs gives you a big clue at the start of every race.

The track announcer customarily doesn’t shout “Theyre off,” but the French-influenced version “Ill sont partis” when races start. 

The thoroughbred season at Evangeline Downs located in Opelousas (yes, a French word that roughly means black leg) started its 2022 season in April, with 84 days of thoroughbred running Wednesday through Saturdays.

Quarter horse racing usually begins in October. Post time is 5:30 p.m. local.

Emphasis on the word local. That is what you get at Evangeline Downs. This is Louisiana racing to a Cajun heartbeat.

The who, what and where

Opelousas is an hour west of Baton Rouge and 30 minutes north of Lafayette. You don’t need to speak French to go there, but don’t be surprised if you hear it in the grandstand. Evangeline Downs is off exit 18 on I49.

The big races on the card are the Acadiana and Lafayette Stakes in mid-April. The big night is June 4 for Louisiana Legends Night. These are six stakes races for Louisiana-bred horses only. (Horses must also speak French – Ok, I made that up).

Evangeline Downs bills itself as the country’s first racino built from the ground up. It’s true. The casino was on site first in 2003, and the racetrack came later. It has nearly 1,200 slot machines, a FanDuel sportsbook, and a 117room hotel.

How many racetracks have their own hotels? 

There is a 7/8 mile turf track and a 1 1/8 mile chute. There’s a small pond on the infield, but it’s not stocked with any alligators. Alligators and horses don’t get along.

Second Site 

The original track location was in Carencro and opened in 1966. Evangeline Downs added video poker machines in 1992, but then Lafayette banned the game in a referendum in 1996. The track moved to Opelousas in 2005.

Opelousas bills itself as the Spice Capital of the World, and it’s where Tony Chacheres is made and LouAna cooking oil. If you don’t know what either of those two things are, then you’ve never tasted real Louisiana food.

The John Henry Connection

Evangeline Downs features the John Henry Room for small parties coming to check out the action. The room can seat 65 guests, and provides a frontrow view to the races.

John Henry is one of the most famous horses in history, and he got his humble start at the original Evangeline Downs, winning his first stakes race, the Louisiana Futurity in 1977. 

His long career included a pair of Eclipse Awards as the Horse of the Year. He won the 1981 Santa Anita Handicap and the first Arlington Million in a photo finish. He died at age 12.

The Cradle of Jockeys

While Evangeline Downs may never feature a horse that races in the triple crown, the track has become known for producing some of the greatest jockeys the sport has ever seen.

For a long time, it was said that it wasn’t a Triple Crown race unless there was a Cajun name riding a horse.

Here are just four prominent jockeys who got their start at Evangeline Downs:

  • Eddie Delahoussaye, from nearby New Iberia. Delahoussaye won two Kentucky Derbies, one Preakness Stakes, and two Belmont Stakes.
  • Kent Desormeaux from outside of Maurice (which basically means, there is no town there). Desormeaux nearly won the triple crown on Real Quiet in 1998, losing in the Belmont by a nose. He has seven Triple crown victories. He started at Evangeline Downs as an apprentice jockey at age 16.
  • Shane Sellers, from the small town of Erath. Sellers started at Evangeline Downs and has had a ride in the Kentucky Derby 14 times, with third being his best finish.
  • Randy Romero is the original Rajun Cajun jockey, another one from Erath. Romero had 4,285 wins and was inducted into the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in 2010.

Come Pass a Good Time

Evangeline Downs is a bit of a throwback to racing days when things were a lot more informal. The clientele is local, the horses are local and the language is well, mixed. 

Away from the track are multiple Cajun restaurants that feature classic menus. If racing is your thing, Evangeline Downs has you covered. If you want to play some slots, you can do that too. After a big win, you can even stay in the hotel. By the time you leave, you’ll probably know a little French.

Photo by shutterstock.com
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Darren Cooper

Darren Cooper was born and raised in Southern Louisiana, just a short pirogue ride away from New Orleans. He started his journalism career at the New Orleans Times-Picayune and has been a writer and columnist in New Jersey since 1998. He's won 14 statewide press awards and earned his first Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 award in 2022.

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