Fair Grounds, Birmingham Illustrate Changing Attitudes Toward Racing

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Ed DeRosa

February 23rd, 2016

There are not a lot of similarities between Fair Grounds and Birmingham Race Courses today, but the history of the two tracks illustrate changing attitudes about horse racing, gambling, and their places in society.

Fair Grounds in New Orleans opened in 1852 as Union Race Course, and like many 19th and turn-of-the-century tracks—think Churchill, Oaklawn, and Pimlico—was built as a part of its neighborhood. The only existing horse racing sites older than Fair Grounds are Saratoga Race Course in Upstate New York and Freehold Raceway in New Jersey.

Birmingham in Central Alabama opened in 1987 and was so far out of the city at that time, they were able to name streets after the project’s benefactors. The development was meant to showcase racing in the South, but there was also clearly some NIMBY (not in my backyard) politics in play.

154 years since racing first began on Gentilly, it continues as an important part not only of that neighborhood but also New Orleans. One of the bigger post Katrina stories in the region is when racing returned to Fair Grounds.

29 years following its opening, the former Birmingham Turf Club now only conducts greyhound racing, but the remnants of its short history as a Thoroughbred racing venue are hard to ignore. The racing surface is mostly intact though grown over, and the box seat and clubhouse areas are still recognizable as such.

Visiting both tracks on consecutive days highlights the contrast.

Fair Grounds is part of the neighborhood and community. There are “racetrack joints” nearby. People in the area can converse knowledgably about the local horsemen, horses, and big events.

Birmingham Race Course is well out from the city. There is interstate and business parks nearby. People in the area built a track for people in other areas, not themselves.

One thing the two tracks have in common is rocky starts: Union Race Course started and stopped several times (and offered harness racing initially and between Thoroughbreds) before becoming Fair Grounds and operating continuously post Civil War. Birmingham cost $85-million and had a very rough start, as detailed in this great piece by none other than Andy Beyer just four months after BTC opened.

One comment in particular resonates even 29 years later. This is from Birmingham’s publicist Chick Lang, who is credited with putting the Preakness Stakes on a national stage.

“When we opened, we projected the image of an upscale glitzy, Taj Mahal kind of place and turned off a lot of the blue-color [sic] population. Now we’re doing things more like a racetrack.”

What a racetrack is means different things to different people, and often those differences are borne at least part out of the location of the racetrack itself.

The cautionary tale here is not about where to build racetracks, as racetrack expansion is not happening, but there is still plenty to learn about the audience racing should embrace.

Racing takes its share of criticism for being stuck in its ways, but the lessons learned from the tracks built more than 100 years ago are still worth applying today.