September 28, 2023

A Day At the Races: From the Windy City to the Big Easy, Nicolle Neulist visits Fair Grounds

Robby Albarado signs autographs at Fair Grounds after winning his 5,000th career race (Nicolle Neulist photo)

words & pictures by NICOLLE NEULIST

As a Chicago racing devotee, I watch a lot of Fair Grounds on simulcast because watching it feels familiar: I know so many of the voices, the riders, the trainers, and the horses from my summers at Arlington.

But it was not until this year that I decided to experience it for myself, so I jumped on a plane and headed to New Orleans for Lecomte Stakes weekend at the Fair Grounds. And thank goodness I did, because after only a few days there I can’t wait to return.

Points races for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks anchored the weekend, and though morning storms left the main track muddy and the turf soft, they dampened no one’s excitement for Louisiana’s rising stars.

Farrell with trainer Wayne Catalano after winning the 2017 Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds (Nicolle Neulist photo)

In the Silverbulletday Stakes, the day’s Kentucky Oaks prep, I relished the chance to see Farrell in person. The classy filly had romped in the Golden Rod last November at Churchill Downs, and I hoped to see her return to such good form after a brief layoff into her three-year-old debut. Farrell did not disappoint me. Rating kindly off of Gris Gris’s early fractions, she edged clear down the stretch. This sets Farrell up well for a showdown against Valadorna in the Rachel Alexandra next month, assuming Valadorna emerges well from her upcoming allowance prep.

Guest Suite enters the Fair Grounds Winner’s Circle after winning the 2017 Lecomte Stakes (Nicolle Neulist photo)

The Lecomte Stakes, so wide open on paper, proved the hive mind correct. Guest Suite took the money from first flash until the spring of the latch, and he did not disappoint. Boxed behind horses while Untrapped and Takeoff began to rally, Guest Suite fired as soon as he found room. Trainer Neil Howard, so cognizant of the line between training him enough and aiming too strongly for an early race, found the right balance. Guest Suite got a little muddy, but won the Lecomte well within himself.

In Saturday’s Marie G. Krantz Memorial Stakes, which ran between the two sophomore stakes, Illinois-bred Prado’s Sweet Ride brought my biggest thrill of the day. You can take me out of Chicago, but you can’t take Chicago out of me. Even when I venture away from home, I get the most excited about seeing my local favorites prove themselves on the road. Kitten’s Roar looked home free, but the longshot daughter of Fort Prado flew down the stretch late. When they crossed the wire, I thought she had won. When the replay flashed across the infield screen, I again could have sworn that Prado’s Sweet Ride had nailed Kitten’s Roar. Though the photo finish camera showed their noses hitting the wire the other way, I still walked away from the rail buzzing with excitement for how well Prado’s Sweet Ride had represented my home state.

Valiant City after winning an allowance race at Fair Grounds (Nicole Neulist photo)
Valiant City after winning an allowance race at Fair Grounds (Nicolle Neulist photo)

On Sunday, another Illinois-bred horse brought his best game. Valiant City—as consistent a horse as you’ll find in the allowance ranks at Arlington and Hawthorne—went off the favorite in the allowance feature. For a horse who has spent so much of his racing career gallivanting across his home state, Valiant City has begun to travel during his older years. Last September, at age six, he won an allowance at Churchill. That was his first race outside Illinois. He returned home to Hawthorne for another allowance victory last October. Laid off from then until his seven-year-old debut on Sunday, he ran down the talented Egyptian in the final furlong, making his first try over the Fair Grounds course a success.

Earlier that afternoon, I saw racing history. In Sunday’s opener, jockey Robby Albarado won his 5,000th career race when he rode Louisiana-bred filly Vivacious V. V. to a minor upset (see featured image above). The Fair Grounds jockey colony flooded the winners’ circle to congratulate him. Then, on the way back to the jockeys’ room, fans along the horse path showered him with accolades. Gracious in victory, Albarado stopped every few feet to sign programs, chat, and share his shining moment with the fans who witnessed it.

A quilt made of silk programs circa early 1900s (Nicole Neulist photo)
A quilt made of silk programs circa early 1900s (Nicolle Neulist photo)

I saw a new page of the Fair Grounds history book written on Sunday afternoon, but read some of its earlier chapters in the mornings. I came early on both Friday and Sunday, and took in the exhibits around the grandstand. Friday morning, I gazed at a quilt made of silk programs, handed to fashionable ladies around the turn of the 20th century. Some of the programs were faded and threadbare; others had names as sharp and readable as the ones in that day’s paper program.

Sunday I visited the Fair Grounds Hall of Fame, and read about Louisiana racing personalities from Richard Ten Broeck to Tom Amoss, horses from Reel to Rachel Alexandra. Even when paying my respects to those who came before, my love for my home circuit shined through: I took particular joy in reading about 1975 Louisiana Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Master Derby: a son of Dust Commander, the only Illinois-bred to win the Run for the Roses.

Fair Grounds has much in common with its hometown, New Orleans. They both have a vibrant history and a lively present. Any fan of horse racing would find it worth their time to visit Fair Grounds, learn about the track’s past, and cheer on their favorite present-day horses and people.

Nicolle loves horse racing but especially loves Illinois racing, Curlin babies, and cute noses; follow her on Twitter @RogueClown