New Orleans Fair Grounds: A Look At A National Landmark

Posted on April 4, 2022

It is the location for New Orleans’ second-biggest party, the Jazz Fest.

It’s a New Orleans cultural landmark, with a history mirroring the city. It has survived fires (two) bankruptcy, wars, threats of demolition, changing ownerships, and changing priorities in the marketplace.

Located in Chilly Gentilly (that’s what my family calls the neighborhood) it’s the New Orleans Fair Grounds, the home of a winter racing season for Thoroughbreds on the rise.

It’s where generations of New Orleanians have spent Thanksgiving dining and enjoying a day out. The third-oldest racetrack in America at 150 years strong. It’s living history. And always one heck of a good time.

For horse racing fans, New Orleans tourists, or long-time residents, Fair Grounds has something for everyone.

Where is the Fair Grounds?

It’s in Mid-City, baby. New Orleans is nothing but a bunch of small neighborhoods all blended with their signature style. Natives know it’s by St. Louis Cemetery Number 3. It’s near a bend in Bayou St. John. The exact address is 1751 Gentilly Boulevard.

It’s not too far from the new airport, maybe 20 minutes. Take exit 2C off of I-610. Parking is free. General Admission is free. 10 bucks will get you into the clubhouse most days but it’s $20 on Louisiana Derby Day.

The Turf track is about a mile and the outside dirt track is a mile and 1/16. It was sold to Churchill Downs in 2004, you know the guys who run that Kentucky Derby.

What can I do at the New Orleans Fair Grounds?

The Fair Grounds runs what’s called a ‘winter session’ for horse racing with a calendar that typically starts around Thanksgiving and ends before Easter. So there are always horses to bet on.

Inside now there are slot machines to play to pass the time. They open at 9 a.m. most days but they aren’t the main attraction.

If you can’t make it to the Fair Grounds itself, there are 15 off-track betting parlors (OTBs) throughout Southeastern Louisiana. Post time is 1 p.m. The bar is open.

When the horses clear out and head North for the spring and summer, the Fair Grounds turns into the coolest music festival location in America. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has made its home here since 1972.

Back in 2019, over 475,000 people came, it was the biggest crowd ever. The dirty little secret in New Orleans is that residents clear out for Mardi Gras, but we go to Jazz Fest.

What special events are there?

You can get married at the Fair Grounds, people do. They welcome groups from 35-100 folks who get a special spot on the private balcony. You can see the city skyline from there.

The clubhouse has been closed for dining the last two sessions thanks to COVID, so they brought in food trucks that served swamp tacos (that’s alligator sausage). The clubhouse food is good though, this is Louisiana, all of our food is good.

The biggest race day is Louisiana Derby Day. No, it’s not as big as the one in Kentucky, but we like it. This year it’s Mar. 26.

The Fair Grounds used to do “starlight racing,” where they’d blow the bugle at 5 p.m. and have the days’ card under the setting sun. It still hosts exotic racing in January with ostriches, camels and zebras. And everyone loves the wiener dog races.

Custer, champions and Black Gold: Fair Grounds legends

Why do they call it the Fair Grounds? Well, that’s just another legend, but most likely because it was once the site of the Mechanics and Agricultural Fair back in 1859.

Legend has it, they started racing around the site back in 1838. It closed, reopened. The Civil War happened. Some scalawags from the Metairie Jockey Club broke away to reform the Louisiana Jockey Club and held the first official races at the Fair Grounds in 1872.

George Custer, he of Last Stand fame, loved New Orleans and attended races here. There are still a few trees on the infield and two champions buried inside the gates. You probably never heard of both.

One is Pan Zareta, a mare who won a record 76 races and was called the Queen of the Turf. She died on Christmas Day in 1918 and is buried here. The other is Black Gold. He won the 1924:

  • Kentucky Derby
  • Louisiana Derby
  • Ohio Derby
  • and Chicago Derby

That’s the quadruple crown before the Triple Crown was a thing. He’s buried near Pan Zareta on the infield.

Music and magic at the New Orleans Fair Grounds

Think of this, is there a place on Earth where …

  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Paul Simon
  • Aretha Franklin
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Bob Dylan
  • and Willie Nelson

… have all performed in addition to a spot where some of racing’s greatest champions have run? It’s a place for good luck, good food, good music and a good time.

The New Orleans Fair Grounds is unlike anywhere in America.

Photo by Alexander Barkoff / Associated Press
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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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