Welcome to the "new normal." No red beans and rice. No oysters on the half shell. No cornbread dressing. The 134th season of Thoroughbred racing at Fair Grounds in New Orleans opened Nov. 19 in, of all places, Shreveport, Louisiana.
Tradition interrupted. For generations of racingfans in New Orleans, the phrase "Opening Day" is interchangeable with Thanksgiving. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, evacuees scattered like birds blown in the wind. Individuals sought refuge in hotels and Red Cross shelters across the south. Businesses struggled to regain continuity of services. For the Fair Grounds racetrack, it meant a crash course in crisis management and a steep, uphill challenge to establish an alternative presence. Somewhere. Anywhere.
With ten minutes before post time for the Fair Grounds at Louisiana Downs meeting, president Randy Soth (a man without an office) was pacing the press box and punching messages into his Blackberry device.
"Our very first objective was to find our employees," Soth explained about the recovery period. "We wanted to know where they were and if they were safe. We tried to resume some normalcy back to their life. Once we established a call center in Louisville and got a handle on where our employees were, we focused on establishing a race meet for the benefit of the horsemen."
For Soth and the remainder of Fair Grounds staff it was a wild scramble. "We all knew that we had an enormous job to accomplish," Soth said. "The first thing we did was throw job descriptions out the window. It was all hands on deck and total flexibility was the key to getting it done."
No argument from trainer Sam David, who had a horse entered in the first race. "After the hit we took, just being able to run a stable means a lot to us horsemen," David said. "For this business, we witnessed a unique cooperation across many factions. Everybody dropped their agendas and pulled together, including the state legislature. Today, on the surface of things it appears effortless but everybody dropped their agendas and pulled together, including the state legislature to make this happen."
The 37-day meet will be the shortest in modern Fair Grounds history but purses should surpass record levels, averaging $315,000 per day. "Everyone seems excited," said Fair Grounds director of racing Ben Huffman. "The horsemen like the purse structure and the stakes schedule. The trainers are champing at the bit."
The first of 34 stakes races for the abbreviated meeting was the $50,000 Gentilly Stakes run at one mile on the turf for Louisiana breds. Coming from off the pace, Jerry D. Lee's versatile 2-year old colt Desert Wheat romped to an impressive victory. "This is a pretty special moment," Lee exclaimed, holding the trophy. "Our churches in Tyler, Texas put up hundreds of evacuees from New Orleans. Who would have imagined it but now here we are in the winner's circle of the first stakes race for the Fair Grounds season?"
There may be no oak trees in the infield of Harrah's Louisiana Downs. The color of the racing strip is more red than bayou brown. The fans wear more Stetson hats and brass belt buckles than is typical of a New Orleans crowd but it was still Opening Day and many of the faces were familiar and smiling.
Donald Mable, a paddock regular at Fair Grounds, evacuated to Houston after a day and night of horror in the Super Dome. His forced journey continues as he waits for word of his house to be re-built.
"I came up here to Shreveport so I could have some fun and be around the horses," Mable explained. "What happened back in New Orleans is behind me. I got a job and a roof over my head. I consider myself fortunate to be alive."