by Ian McNulty
Thanksgiving is a time to partake in holiday traditions, but not all those traditions necessarily fit the Norman Rockwell archetype of the prayerful family gathered around a roasted turkey.
For some in New Orleans, Thanksgiving would not be complete without screaming gleefully at thoroughbred horses while clutching bloody Marys and wiping Creole mustard from their chins. Extra points if they happen to be dressed like extras from “My Fair Lady.” For them, turkey day means good food, low bets and high style at the New Orleans Fair Grounds.
Thanksgiving is opening day for the thoroughbred season at the Fair Grounds, and an outing to the historic track has long been a central part of the holiday celebration for many households. Some make a day of it here, others simply pass through for a race or two en route to grandpa’s house, but altogether some 7,000 people typically visit the track on Thanksgiving, according to Fair Grounds spokesman Jim Mulvihill.
This being New Orleans, and a holiday, many of them dress up for the outing and this doesn’t just mean your run-off-the-mill holiday sweater or autumn tweed. Some appear in delightfully elaborate or retro or creative get-ups, from Edwardian day-at-the-races chic to out-and-out costumes as they saunter between the track’s bars, betting windows, paddock and rail. On Thanksgivings past I’ve seen ladies dressed as jockeys (and one dressed as a horse), guys in pilgrim outfits and others in lacy, stovepipe fashion that wouldn’t look out of place at a steam punk convention or burlesque revue.
This being New Orleans too, food is an important part of the visit and it’s served in a few different ways.
At the top, literally, is the Thanksgiving dinner buffet in the track’s upscale Clubhouse Dining Room. Getting a table for this Thanksgiving service can be as competitive as landing a Friday lunch four-top at Galatoire’s, so not surprisingly Mulvihill confirms that the clubhouse is already sold out this year. But go down a level to the Grandstand and you’ll find a come-one, come-all Thanksgiving buffet available for $25.99 per person.
The third option, and probably the best for those saving room for a sit-down Thanksgiving meal somewhere, is simply a snack from the Fair Grounds’ many concession stands. Rail birds know that this food is famously superior to the typical arena and stadium fare of other sporting venues, and that reputation is earned on the quality of the Fair Grounds' treatment of New Orleans comfort food. The red beans or white beans and rice, the gumbo, the oyster and artichoke soup and especially the corned beef po-boys slathered with Creole mustard (watch your chin) are reasonably priced and reliably satisfying.
Alas, the Fair Grounds’ paddock side oyster bar is not in service this year, taking one long-time track tradition out of rotation. It’s been out of action since last year, after the BP oil spill upended local oyster supplies. Mulvihill says the track hopes to reopen its oyster bar eventually.
Oh yes, and there are races here too. This year, the season opener is the 86th annual running of the Thanksgiving Handicap. For the uninitiated, the Thanksgiving Handicap is not a condition brought on by too much turkey and bourbon but rather a 10-race card, with the first post at 11 a.m. Grandstand general admission is free.
Enticing as Thanksgiving at the track may sound, some will never be able to sacrifice family plans for such an outing. Keep in mind, though, that as droves flock to shop the following day — Black Friday in the retail world — others perch themselves on the rail at the Fair Grounds, where the entire opening weekend has a festive flair.
New Orleans Fair Grounds & Slots
1751 Gentilly Blvd., 944-5515