“She was fast, she was beautiful, and she was smart,” writes William H. P. Robertson in his landmark The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. This describes the great race mare Pan Zareta, but it also applies to the track where she is buried: New Orleans’ Fair Grounds Race Course. In the track’s heyday of the teens and 1920s, Fair Grounds was fast because of the speedy horses, beautiful because of its lush growth, and smart because it was a great place to race for Northerners seeking a warm place to run their horses.
Its two greatest heroes–Pan Zareta and Black Gold–ran surrounding the Golden Age of racing. If you’ve ever read Marguerite Henry’s children’s book Black Gold, you may remember Pan Zareta as the Texas mare who beat Black Gold’s dam, Useeit. Both are buried at Fair Grounds. They’re the lasting symbols of the place, and of their own times in racing. Articles about Fair Grounds during the Pan Zareta-Black Gold years tell a story of a track where things always seemed to be happening.
In late December of 1919, the grandstand and some outbuildings burned down, but by December 31st Daily Racing Form reported that, “The days of miracles are still with us, at least the seemingly impossible has been accomplished,”. Workers labored around the clock, and Fair Grounds would open again on New Year’s Day of 1920. The Form continued, “The consensus of opinion is that the greatest season of winter sport in the Crescent City will be inaugurated with the running of the attractive New Year’s Day program.” Juvenile racing and a big handicap run January 1 would be some of the draws.
These big races and the track’s lax rules (many horsemen felt strongly that the “baby” races at Fair Grounds, which allowed new two-year-olds to run before April, were harmful) caused some problems. In November of 1922, there were allusions to some shenanigans about the racetrack. A man named Remy Dorr, a “well-known operator, who at times has been in the limelight because of his daring manipulations” was “warned off the turf.” The stewards wouldn’t explain why, but the whole meet had evidently been marred by capricious or laissez-faire stewarding. “The word has been passed that infractions, no matter how trifling, will be severely dealt with. The ‘drastic’ remedy will be applied early. There is no intent to encounter aftermaths,” reported DRF.
Pan Zareta had met her Fair Grounds end before then, dying of pneumonia just before the day’s racing, on January 19, 1918, DRF reported: “She had been on the ailing list since her arrival here from Kentucky, but at one stage she was regarded as out of danger. A movement has been inaugurated to bury her in the Fair Grounds infield and that a suitable monument be erected over her grave.”
“Her speed was of the extreme order and in that respect she was quite a marvellous creature. . .She was hard raced through her career of six years in track service, but was hardy and seemed to thrive under the severe calls made upon her,” the next day’s Form continued. In a time when hardiness was as valuable as speed, Pan Zareta had made an impression on horsemen not just in Texas or Louisiana, but all over.
Black Gold spent more time at the New Orleans track than Pan Zareta did. His career–what Robertson calls “racing’s most romantic true story”– was marked by turns of fate and promise, because he was bred by a devoted widow and his trainer was Hanley Webb. In Henry’s verison of Black Gold’s life, Webb overtrains the horse, even though he cares very much about him. Black Gold won the Kentucky Derby, set an American record for 1 1/ 8 miles (1:48 4/5) and another for 1 3/4 miles (2:54 3/5). His end was tragic: he broke his leg during his first race as a seven-year-old and had to be put down right at Fair Grounds. Today, descendants of his owners meet and award a trophy after the Black Gold Stakes each year. (This year’s will be run on March 10, 2012.)
Today, Fair Grounds remains an important racetrack. It hosts the Louisiana Derby, and last week jockey Rosie Napravnik won three stakes races in a day. It also has slots and other gambling and hosts events like Best Bartender in New Orleans and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
There are other horses buried at the Fair Grounds, writes a local trivia reporter who calls himself Blake Ponchartrain. (His pseudonym reminds me of turf writers like Salvator who took their pen names from their subjects.) One horse, he writes, was named La Doree, and the other Tudor Tambourine. La Doree won the Fair Grounds Oaks in 1978, and Tudor Tambourine (co-owned by Ruth of Ruth’s Chris Steak House) won the New Orleans Handicap in 1977. But the track’s history belongs to Pan Zareta and Black Gold: fast, beautiful, and, in their own ways, smart.