NEW ORLEANS — Paige Bernhardt and Nancylee Myatt moved to New Orleans from California a couple of years ago. When they were out West, they frequented the famous horse-racing track at Santa Anita.
But now that they’re in the Big Easy, they’ve grown to love the Fair Grounds Race Course on Gentilly Avenue. They enjoy it so much, in fact, that for their first two Thanksgivings in the city — including this one — they’ve come to the Fair Grounds for the local track’s opening day blowout.
Dressed in multihued vests, ties and derbies and sporting purple and orange nail polish, Bernhardt and Myatt took a break in between the sixth and seventh races and discussed why opening day at the Fair Grounds has already become a Turkey Day tradition for them.
“We love this track,” Bernhardt said. “Our home track was Santa Anita, and now it’s the Fair Grounds.”
Added Myatt: “It’s a great little track.”
They noted, however, that they initially weren’t aware of how huge a deal opening day at the Fair Grounds is — and how many racegoers dress to the nines for the event.
“We didn’t know about the dressing-up stuff,” Bernhardt said with a grin.
Fashion, in addition to horses, was certainly on parade in the grandstands, the clubhouse and the VIP areas Thursday as a crowd of about 8,500 watched the 87th running of the $100,000 Thanksgiving Handicap. The big race was won by Delaunay, ridden by Rosie Napravnik, trained by Tom Amoss and owned by Maggi Moss.
It was an upset over pre-race favorite Gantry, who won last year’s Handicap and finished second this year. Cash Refund was third.
In the VIP area, some women sported tight skirts, freakishly high heels and pricey jewelry, while many of the men wore natty suits, complete with handkerchiefs in the pockets, and traditional derby hats and chapeaux as they took in the 10-race card.
But down on the ground, in the open-air areas, the scene was a bit different, taking on a Mardi Gras feel. Women flaunted huge hats topped with purple and pink and yellow feathers, knee-high boots and beads around their necks. Men wore everything from cargo shorts and sneakers to gaudy sweater vests and baseball hats.
While the fans upstairs dined on a lavish buffet dinner and sipped wine and champaign brought by attentive, tuxedoed waiters, the hipster crowd below threw back beers, queued up at concession stands and lined the fence at the track.
Such diversity is the beauty of opening day at the Fair Grounds, Thanksgiving regular Rob Clemenz said.
“It’s the perfect blend of prototypes of people,” said Clemenz, who was dressed in a sport coat and jeans. “You’ve got everything: young and old, rich and middle class, black and white and Asian. It’s beautiful.”
Whatever their ethnic or economic background, horse-racing enthusiasts streamed into the Fair Grounds by the thousands.
The parking lot at the track began to fill up by 10 a.m. — a full hour before the first race — and around 12:30 p.m., track managers announced that only valet parking remained, leaving hundreds of attendees to park in the adjoining neighborhoods and hike to the track.
It made for a 12-hour day of standing in the sun for parking lot attendants and endless hours of bringing booze to fans in the clubhouse for the wait staff as guests lined up to place bets and milled around socializing with drinks in their hands.
Among those putting money down Thursday were Rick Duplantier and Cindy Woolridge, of New Orleans, who are track regulars during the four-month racing season and who frequently come for opening day.
For them, not only is the event a blast, but it also means no piles of pots and pans in the sink at home.
“It’s just the place for a New Orleans tradition,” Duplantier said with a laugh.
But the horse racing doesn’t stop on Thanksgiving either, and Duplantier and Woolridge said they will continue to haunt the clubhouse throughout the Fair Grounds’ 2012-13 season.
“We’ll be here tomorrow,” Duplantier said as he sipped a beer. “The day after Thanksgiving is a big day, too.”