Horse Racing Returns to New Orleans

The Associated Press
Thursday, November 23, 2006; 6:13 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- They hauled off soil tainted by Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters and rebuilt a grandstand roof ripped free by the storm's winds. After more than a year of renovations, costing about $16 million, a Thanksgiving tradition _ horse racing _ returned to New Orleans on Thursday. And a record crowd of 8,732 people turned out to welcome it.

The annual winter meet has started on Thanksgiving Day in all but a few years since 1934. Until last year, when Katrina forced the Fair Grounds to move its season to Louisiana Downs near Shreveport, people like 16-year-old Joe Talamo had spent nearly every Thanksgiving in memory at the venerable New Orleans track, where live oak trees, hundreds of years old, grace the infield.

Talamo, who grew up in suburban Marrero and is now an apprentice jockey, won the first, post-Katrina race under a clear blue sky and in front of a swelling crowd.

He was aboard Clouds on the Walk, who went off at odds of a little more than 2-1. Talamo broke with the front three horses and pulled away at end of the mile, 40-yard race.

"Ooh, when I knew I won the race, I mean, man, it was indescribable, you know?" Talamo said, his voice cracking with emotion. "We've been coming here ever since I was a little kid on Thanksgiving Day, and to win the opening race, it feels really good."

The winning trainer, 73-year-old Larry Robideaux Jr., also is a Louisiana native. He has been running horses at the Fair Grounds since 1960. He last won an opening race in 1968.

"You never forget those ... and to come back and win the first race here since Katrina, that's really special," he said. "Absolutely, I wanted to win the first race back. I've raced around the country and it's more meaningful to win a race here than any other race track I've been to."

Much as with the New Orleans Saints' return to the Louisiana Superdome in late September, thousands flocked to the track simply to be part of the rebirth of what had long ago become a quintessential New Orleans experience.

"I used to come here as a child. We always came Thanksgiving Day, and we come as a family," said Patsy Rink, who had 13 impeccably dressed grandchildren and several other relatives feasting with her. "We're just thrilled to be back. I'm looking forward to seeing all my friends. It looks great."

About 1,200 dining spaces sold out in about 35 minutes when they became available Nov. 6.

Thousands more spectators _ from hard-core types, losing themselves in the racing form, to gatherings of sharply dressed socialites sipping Bloody Marys _ meandered from the grandstand to the flower-laden paddock. The smell of fried turkey, a Louisiana holiday tradition, wafted in the air.

Crooner and actor Harry Connick Jr. was there with his dad, a retired Orleans Parish District Attorney. Carolina Panthers quarterback and Louisiana native Jake Delhomme was listed as the owner of a horse named Seventy Two Reno in one of the 10 races. Delhomme's father, Jerry Delhomme, was the trainer of the horse, which placed fourth.

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