New Orleans has a long list of holiday traditions. Whether it’s a yearly trip to Celebration in the Oaks or The Vampire Ball, our unique history has created a multitude of events you can only find in the Crescent City. Attending the opening day at the New Orleans’ Fair Grounds Race Track is one of those. It coincides with Thanksgiving Day and, for years, has been known only to old school New Orleanians.
A Short History of the Fair Grounds Race Track
On April 10, 1838 the first races were run at the Louisiana Race Course on Gentilly Road. Bernard de Marigny, Julius C. Branch, and Henry Augustine Tayloe had commissioned the track and organized the races, including the inaugural running of the Creole Purse with a $1000 prize. These races, and their generous purses, led to a longer season the next year.
In 1852, the track was renamed the Union Race Course but changed names again only 11 years later due to mounting tensions between the Northern and Southern states. The newly christened Fair Grounds Race Course saw a series of openings and closings up to and through the Civil War until finally, in 1872, the first official races sponsored by the Louisiana Jockey Club were run.
The Fair Grounds Race Course is now the third oldest race track still operating in the United States. In 2009, it ranked #12 on a list of the 65 best race courses in the nation, and, because this is New Orleans, the traditional Thanksgiving opening day festivities have evolved beyond simply watching a few turns round the track.
Traditions Take Many Forms
In 1892, the Crescent City Jockey Club established the winter racing season schedule. Thanksgiving Day became opening day as it gave the Creole, Spanish, French, and American residents of the city something to do before or after their dinners. As horse races were considered a formal affair, all attendees would dress in their best clothing and ladies, who wanted to show their wealth as well as catch a gentleman’s eye, wore large hats often decorated with satin or silk.
Over the years, those attending the races kept up the tradition of dressing well for opening day while putting their own twist on the idea of large hats being indicators of high society. New Orleanians are never ones to turn down a chance to costume, or mask, and the once stately hats became larger, brighter, and themed to the day. These DIY couture headpieces have become as much a part of the opening day spectacle as the horses themselves.
Time Stands Still on Thanksgiving Day at the Fair Grounds
New Orleans has always had an uncanny ability to mix the old and new into something unique. Our Thanksgiving Day traditions are no different in that regard and one of the most fascinating parts of the opening day races is the way time seems to stand still for us. Since the early 1800s, the races have been a place for people from all classes, races, and nationalities to come together, to see and be seen, and mix together in a spirit of frivolity (and the occasional friendly bet).
150 years later, we New Orleanians still turn out in our holiday best, blazers freshly pressed and the glue still drying on our custom DIY couture headwear. One can easily imagine a gentleman from the 1830s strolling through the modern-day crowd with no one being the wiser. So, if you someday find yourself at the Fair Grounds for Thanksgiving be sure to chat with the other dandies. You never know what stories you’ll have to tell the family over a slice of Gambino’s Harvest Parfait Cake after the festivities are over.