Fair Grounds opens infield to fest

“When you’re this close, you understand why they call it horsepower,” said Leslie Monson, as hooves thundered, fans cheered and the first pack of racehorses at the 100th annual Louisiana Derby blazed across the finish line.

Monson, a marketing manager for the New Orleans Fair Grounds, was on hand Saturday to help oversee a new addition to the track’s oldest race: An infield festival replete with 17 food trucks, music by New Orleans bands Flow Tribe and Cowboy Mouth, and a host of features intended to showcase horse racing’s appeal to a larger demographic.

In addition to catching Saturday’s 13 different races from the grandstand, racing patrons could dance, eat, drink and gamble inside the track, all the while watching the action from VIP sections or the rail.

Mark Conner, senior director of marketing at the Fair Grounds, said the management is trying to expose a wide array of New Orleanians to horse racing, especially younger patrons.

“It’s got to be one of the cheapest forms of entertainment available in New Orleans,” Connor said. “For a couple bucks, you can have a great time.”

Conner said that the idea for the infield festival was drawn in part from the success of the track’s Starlight events, which mix evening races with a club-type of atmosphere offering disc jockeys and live music acts.

In addition to boosting attendance, Conner said, he hoped the festival would draw attendees from all walks of life.

“We’re hoping to get a real hodgepodge of New Orleans, from women dressed in fancy hats to younger people in shorts,” he said.

On Saturday, the usual exquisite headgear and white linen suits were on display, but a younger crowd, more often sporting a tattoo than a seersucker, shared in the festivities in the infield.

“This is the most bumping spot in New Orleans this weekend,” said Zack Tanenbaum, 25, who manned a stand for Hanen’s Snow Bliz, a snowball stand at Tchoupitoulas and Bordeaux streets.

Tanenbaum compared the event to a “mini Jazz Fest.” The lifelong racing fan said that coupling horse racing with live music is a great way to attract younger fans.

A few hundred feet away, Tim Brannan, a fan experience educator for Horse Player Now, gave novices a tutorial on betting strategy.

Brannan said that wagering on races can often seem confusing and intimidating to new patrons, so he tries to give them simple, effective tips on how to maximize their money.

“We want people to get the best bang for their buck,” said Brannan, while explaining the difference between betting on a horse to win, place or show.

An estimated $10 million was being wagered worldwide on the Louisiana Derby, which is a crucial stop for the 3-year-old thoroughbreds on the road to the Kentucky Derby.

And there was plenty of action in the Fair Grounds infield, where patrons could place bets at the many betting machines housed inside a large tent.

The festival also offered two VIP sections, where attendees nibbled on jambalaya and bread pudding, while sitting either in stands with a panoramic view of the track or at tables just feet away from the finish line.

In one of the sections, Daniel Filipek, 28, and his friend Grant Patterson, 29, were at a table, sipping beers and busily studying the racing program.

Filipek, an avid racing fan in town from Arkansas, examined a spreadsheet peppered with notes, in preparation for placing his wagers.

“What’s not to like?” Filipek said.

“I like to gamble, there is great people watching and you’ve got plenty of ladies dressed up to a tee.”