Racing in New Orleans: Two Loves

Some places touch a deep part of your soul. For me, New Orleans and its heady weird beauty is such a place. Each time my plane descends towards Louis Armstrong International Airport, over the resplendent gray-blue expanse of Lake Pontchartrain and the silty ribbon of the Mississippi, with its barges and tugboats and green grassy banks, my heart skips like a happy colt and a part of me feels like I’ve come home.

Yet aside from a brief trip to Fair Grounds Race Course on a dark day a few summers ago, my love for New Orleans has never met my love for horse racing.

On March 5, like a pair of Lake Michigan seagulls briefly dipping their toes into the Gulf of Mexico, my friend Christine and I took a one-night trip from Chicago to New Orleans. Our ultimate focus was visiting her homebred racehorse, Calusa Red, who was stabled at the Fair Grounds Race Course.

We were unfortunate enough to land in the city on a blustery 35-degree day. As the previous day in New Orleans had been a comfortable 80 degrees, there were jokes abound about us bringing the Chicago weather with us, as if packed haphazardly into our luggage along with our clothes and my camera gear.

After a tasty lunch at Eat New Orleans in the French Quarter, we took a cab to the Fair Grounds. Shielded from the biting wind in the enclosed grandstand, we watched live racing before catching a ride with Greg Geier, Calusa’s trainer, to the backside.

Horses are walked in the paddock on a blustery cold day in New Orleans. (Fair Grounds, March 5, 2015)
Patrons watch live racing from inside the enclosed grandstand. (Fair Grounds, March 5, 2015)
Trainer Greg Geier confers with jockey Marcelino Pedroza after a race. (Fair Grounds, March 5, 2015)
Calusa Red receives a kiss from his owner. (Fair Grounds, March 5, 2015)
Morning at the Fair Grounds, March 6, 2015.

The following morning truly brought racing and New Orleans together for me. Two miles from the last whispers of the previous night’s Bourbon Street debauchery is the familiar golden quiet of a racetrack in the morning. The horses stand, jog, gallop, and breeze on the track, the low morning sun slanted into the faces of riders and horses alike. The routines and smells of the working barns are the same as any other — Saratoga, Arlington Park, Keeneland.

Only glancing to the west and spying the tops of the tombs in St. Louis Cemetery next door cracks the illusion and reminds you that you are in New Orleans.

Horses are exercised during morning works. (Fair Grounds, March 6, 2015)
A horse is tended to after morning works. (Fair Grounds, March 6, 2015)
Champion and winner of the 2014 Kentucky Oaks and Breeder’s Cup Distaff, Untapable, with assistant trainer Scott Blasi. (Fair Grounds, March 6, 2015)
The French Quarter, New Orleans, March 6, 2015.

In the afternoon, before returning to the airport, we ate beignets and oysters and spent a couple hours taking in the indiscriminate beauty of the French Quarter.

Despite a part of my heart missing my husband — we eloped to New Orleans in 2006 and I have only been to the city without him one other time — my brief time there was sweet, and it was satisfying to see the racetrack side of New Orleans and, at last, see two of my loves come together.

French Quarter. (New Orleans, March 6, 2015)
Royal Street, French Quarter. (New Orleans, March 6, 2015)
Bourbon Street, French Quarter. (New Orleans, March 6, 2015)
Bourbon Street, French Quarter. (New Orleans, March 6, 2015)
French Quarter. (New Orleans, March 6, 2015)