Thursday, April 01, 2010
The First Thing You Notice When Arrive in New Orleans Is…
NEW ORLEANS, March 30, 2010 .…That as you walk into Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots, you believe you’re walking into a real racetrack. With all the racinos in this country, that are more about casinos than racing, that’s no given.
Most racinos are sterile. The atmosphere is decidedly bland if it were not for all the clanging and whirring noises. Worse is the fact that many act ashamed there’s actual horse racing going on there. Sometimes just knowing where to go to see the races is an adventure in itself.
Not so in the Crescent City, where tradition not only counts but where references to the city’s history are as much a part of the landscape as are monuments to General Jackson, General Beauregard and Joan of Arc. On horseback, of course.
I was never to the old Fair Grounds, of which there were two, one destroyed by fire and the other by Hurricane Katrina. But give their corporate owners, Churchill Downs Inc., credit for this: They left well enough alone and seemingly enhanced what was there.
As you walk into the clubhouse through the glass doors of the valet entrance, you immediately notice about 100 feet in front of you is another set of glass doors that open out to the paddock area, located about 10 feet away.
To the left as you walk in is a newsstand where you can buy a Racing Form or a handy pocket program. Sized to slip into a back pocket, the pocket program has four lines of abbreviated past performances per horse.
It’s not a comprehensive handicapping tool by any means but if you’ve done your homework there’s just enough information to jar your memory about what you liked about a some horse in the first place; company lines, race shapes, etc., etc.
In front and to the left of the door leading to the paddock is a Will Call and Customer Service desk staffed by knowledgeable and friendly people. It is New Orleans, remember.
To the right, adjacent to an escalator that carries you to a second floor viewing stand that overlooks the paddock, where the horses seem close enough to touch, is a large floor-to-ceiling glass partition behind which are the slot machines.
I didn’t walk into the slots area as I prefer my iron men to dispense mutuel tickets and not chits or coins. But what I liked was that the machines and floor layout was reminiscent of a Las Vegas casino. The sense was that the players arrived by car, not by the bus-load.
If I didn’t hate the word, I’d describe the paddock as cute. Cute as a button, as a matter of fact. So let’s go with quaint; attractive. The paddock area is a wide semi-circle around which are assembled horsemen and horseplayers. Enclosed saddling stalls are on the opposite side of the viewing area.
It’s all a bit claustrophobic at first, probably owing to three more floors that rim around that same semi-circle. Gulfstream-light might be more apt.
Walk another 150 feet around the paddock and out onto the apron. In front of the glass enclosed grandstand housing five floors of boxes, trackside restaurants and parterres are tiered benches providing a good view of the long Fair Grounds straight.
Interesting that the length is not its only distinguishing feature, but the width of the homestretch, too. Belmont Park it’s not. What the whole thing is is pretty damn cool. A publicist would call it racing as it was meant to be. And he would be right.
* * *
….That as soon as you de-plane there’s a vibe, not one that can be explained but, by definition, must be felt. No one’s in a hurry here and everyone seems like they want to help. Strangers stop you on the street and begin a conversation, some of a quite personal nature.
A tall, craggy-faced older black man tapped me on the shoulder on Decatur Street, just outside Jackson Square to be precise, and asked “Is that your wife? Man, she’s really good lookin’. You know what that makes you, don’t it?”
I played along. “No, what?” “That makes you a lucky man,” he said. I said that I guess it does. Then he said: “Man, she’s so good lookin’ she makes medicine look sick.”
He laughed aloud, extended a hand and we fist-bumped, laughing together. “See y’all again, have a good time,” he said, then continued walking his way, we our’s, smiling.
* * *
….That despite the laid back atmosphere and slow southern pace, most drivers on I-10 would have little problem finding work as New York City cabdrivers. I normally would number myself among those, as I was bred top and bottom for impatience, but being unfamiliar I was right lane-ing it most of the time.
Not an easy city to learn, with all the neighborhoods sectioned off in square grids. To make it tougher, every street had a name. But I-10 provides access to almost anywhere in the city and driving slowly gives visitors a chance to look around.
I saw two classic billboards. One was a big black and gold sign, one you couldn’t miss as you drove east on I-10 towards downtown. It read: “Aints, 1969-2009, Rest In Peace.”
The other gives hope to every lonely men who either lives in New Orleans or is just passing through. The billboard was an advertisement for a Gentlemen’s Club which essentially gave every customer a chance to get lucky. “Come In and See Us,” it read. “We’ve got a dozen gorgeous women, and three ugly ones.”
* * *
….I explained to one of the locals that I was a journalist interested in seeing any of the horrible remnants in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Upon his advise, we drove east on I-10 from our hotel in Metairie and exited Carrollton Ave. which I presumed was a gateway to the infamous Ninth Ward* so devastated by the storm.
After driving a mile, maybe a bit more, we came upon N. Rampart St. and made a left turn and drove a few blocks. There was sporadic damage, construction everywhere, and about three real estate signs per block. “We Pay Top Dollar.”
Toni thought she saw something of interest to shoot and so we pulled over. After about five minutes, I saw her motioning through the rear view to come outside. I walked up the block and she introduced me to Don Ryan and later his wife, Robin.
He had just returned home, driving all night from Mobile following some weekend gigs. Don’s a musician, a.k.a. “the Blue Max,” with a CD coming out soon. Ryan toured with Willie Nelson back in the day, gets work as a studio musician and is now striking out on his own with a few songs he’s written.
The conversation was immediate and warm, the usual where-you-from and what-do-you-do, when Robin walked through the screen door and joined the conversation.
Robin retired from the Air Force and subsequently got her doctorate, doing her thesis on the effect John Ford’s propaganda film, made at the behest of the U.S. government, has had on the way Pearl Harbor has been perceived in this country ever since.
Robin said she just bought the house last year and how she owns both sides of this typical New Orleans quasi-row house. I say quasi because in four days I might have seen only two or three examples of like structures standing side-by-side.
All houses in New Orleans are different colors and styles. In the French Quarter, e.g., you can paint your house any one of 18 different colors, the most popular being pink, according to “Big John,” our guide. I saw the brightest shade of chartreuse I’ve ever seen anywhere, much less covering a house.
Don and Robin’s house was typical of New Orleans, about as wide as a good-sized room but long enough to extend nearly a half block. The house was done in early 70s motif; festooned with guitars, scarves and boas that extended to a back porch, its yard sitting hard by the back of Peter and Paul Church.
When it comes to churches, Brooklyn has nothing on New Orleans. They’re ubiquitous. Not a particularly religious man, Don described his surroundings as “my little piece of heaven where I can kick back before I have to get back on the road.”
Don’s friend Scott showed up, enjoying a day off. He was in with a construction crew from Alabama, helping to construct turbines for use in the area. “They need all the kilowatts they can get,” Scott said.
“We were lucky here,” Don said. “This block is on higher ground. We hardly had any flooding at all.”
It was time for us to get back on the road but not before Don and Robin provided “go cups,” standard procedure in New Orleans. They can be filled with whatever, so we took those, and were given a couple of necks-full of beads. “Just some throws to take with you.”
“My agent is lining up some New York gigs,” said Don. “I may be up there in July.”
I explained that I was pretty busy during July and August. “Do you play the horses?” I asked. “Actually, I own one, but my brother takes care of it. I gave him the papers and he’s been racing it this year.”
We left the conversation right there, promising to look him up the next time we’re in town.”
* * *
…..That wherever you come from food is, well, a matter of taste. On balance, however, nowhere is it any better or as unique tasting as it is here. No matter what the fare, the variation is always New Orleans.
Our first night, we went to Bozo’s, a very informal spot popular with the locals. We knew we were in the right place because Robby Albarado and Donna Brothers were doing a feature at the Oyster Bar on the Cajun rider’s favorite New culinary haunts for NBC’s “Road to the Kentucky Derby” telecast.
My tout was right on; it was the best fried food on the planet. No egg wash, no batter, just a light dredging of corn meal and cottonseed oil. No napkins necessary. The fried oysters, catfish, Redfish and stuffed crab cake were amazing.
The secret, according to our waiter and horseplayer, Ray, is that the oil is cleared of remnants from the previous cooking, and is changed completely after every eight to 10 meals. If the story was apocryphal, it sure didn’t taste that way.
The next night we played dress-up and went to Brigtsen’s, a charming, award-winning white linen establishment far from the madding crowd on Dante Street.
We were greeted by Maura Brigsten, wife of the owner and head chef, Frank. Following the Fair Grounds Oaks, we beat him back to the restaurant. He was alive in the late Pick 4; we weren’t.
Eat anything Frank wants to put in front of you, I was told. But if you can start with the Pumpkin Lobster Bisque, with just enough heat to meld with the sweet creaminess. If not, go for the Oyster, Spinach and Brie soup. It’s to die for. Then say goodnight with their signature Pecan Pie. Their love for their city and for making people happy is as obvious as Secretariat in the Belmont.
After the races Saturday, with the original tout coming from Dallas Stewart--whose late developing Seeking the Title bears watching in the Kentucky Oaks--we ended up at Mandina’s which, according to Bob Fortus of the Times-Picayune and Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal, is “never a bad idea.:
It wasn’t. Start with the Turtle Soup, with a drop of Sherry, and go from there. That’s never a bad idea, either.
* Correction made on 040210
Written by John Pricci