From time to time we are fortunate enough to receive a dispatch from New Orleans sent by Gary McMillen, an old friend, dynamite writer and photographer -- Badlands Journal editorial board
Ghosts, Gumbo and Hurricanes
Hot, dark and spicy---look into a bowl of gumbo and see the reflection of the city of New Orleans. Throw the recipe out the window. Empty the freezer. The key to a good pot of gumbo is lots of different ingredients. Chicken, crabs, okra, cayenne pepper, oysters, smoked sausage and shrimp: stir it all up and serve over rice.
People call New Orleans “Big Easy.” Maybe it’s because nobody really takes themselves too seriously. Maybe it’s because the pace of life is slow and close to the simple things of life like drinking a cold beer or dancing in a street parade. From an original swamp settlement of French, African and Spanish bloodlines, the “city that care forgot” is now a bubbling mixture of Irish, Italian, Vietnamese, Palestinians, Chinese, Cajuns, Chinese, Creoles, Mexicans and Cubans that, if they hear a brass band, will start waving their handkerchiefs and throwing Mardi Gras beads.
Ingrained in the mixed up crawfish DNA of New Orleans is the Fair Grounds race track. So much is the race track a part of the pulse of the city that an unconscious reference to Thanksgiving often comes out as “Opening Day.” Call it tradition. Forget the turkey and cranberry sauce, the real deal is “Who do you like in the Daily Double?” After a brief prayer with family at the dinner table followed by some thinly disguised excuses, the hard core Fair Grounds regular makes post time for the first race with corn bread dressing still on his chin.
The history of the Fair Grounds is deep as the Gulf of Mexico. Only two other tracks (Saratoga and Pimlico) in the United States have older birth certificates. April 13, 1872 was the inaugural day of racing at Fair Grounds. The programs were printed on silk cloth and General George Armstrong Custer’s Frogtown ran second in the feature heat. Confiscated from the Confederate cavalry, Custer operated a stable of 40 thoroughbreds at Fair Grounds before shipping out to the Little Big Horn in South Dakota.
Over the decades, good and great horses have come galloping down the long Fair Grounds stretch. Black Gold (winner of the 1924 Kentucky Derby) and Pan Zareta (legendary mare and winner of 78 races) are buried in the infield. Triple Crown winners Citation and Whirlaway were under silks at Fair Grounds. Kentucky Derby winners Lil E Tee and War Emblem spent their entire winter at the Gentilly oval. John Henry made nine un-remarkable starts at the Fair Grounds, while bankrolling $2,663. The courageous gelding would go forward to Horse of the Year honors in 1981 and 1984. The filly Rachel Alexandra (Horse of the Year in 2009) is currently in training at the Fair Grounds for her upcoming “race of the ages” showdown with Zenyatta in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
Stand and deliver. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. On the night of December 17, 1993, a seven alarm fire destroyed the Fair Grounds grandstand. With the fire trucks still in the parking lot, owner Bryan Krantz met with his executive staff, sketching out the strategy of recovery on a piece of poster board illuminated by hand-held flashlights. “We felt some loyalty to the employees and to the horsemen that we re-constitute a live meet as immediate as possible,” Krants recalled. After a round the clock effort to erect temporary facilities (tents), racing resumed in 19 days.
The next sucker punch to put the Fair Grounds down for a mandatory eight count was Hurricane Katrina. With the barns and property under flood waters for two weeks and the roof blown off the grandstand/clubhouse, the meet was moved to Louisiana Downs in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Home sweet home. The current corporate owned and operated Fair Grounds facility is new, modern and clean. Too bad, because the anti-septic atmosphere of the building is out of sync with the culture of down and dirty misfits that once roamed the grandstand. In honor of that gallery of ghosts that gave Fair Grounds a special character, what follows is a roll call of renegades.
There was Q-Ball, the pool hustler from the Irish Channel that brought his stick with him to the track kitchen so he could run the table on un-suspecting trainers from Chicago, who thought they had a game. There was “Rabbit,” the quiet and polite press-box custodian that (as a groom) had ridden in a box car with Seabiscuit. There was the covenant of nuns from The Little Sisters of the Poor. For a promised tithe of the winning purse from Louie Roussel III, the obedient nuns did novenas in the clubhouse before Risen Star’s victory in the 1988 Louisiana Derby.
Never politically correct, there was the legendary and superstitious “Black Cat” Lacombe, who was the Fair Grounds publicity director. “Black Cat” wore one brown shoe and one black shoe on days that he had a “sure thing.” There was the seductive “Toong” (a Korean girl that shucked oysters in the clubhouse). If Toong liked you then she kept opening them until you told her to stop. With a smile and wink, it was all at the same low price. “Miss Dorothy” worked at “The Grill” on the rickety third floor of the wooden grandstand. Miss Dorothy’s special customers got extra gravy and hot mustard on their corn beef sandwich along with a “Good luck, Sweetie,” send off.
One unforgettable regular was the impeccable, light-skinned Creole called the “Man in Red,” who wore red socks, red patent leather shoes, red slacks, red vest and bright red suspenders. “Big Time Crip” was a black bookie with a goatee. An amputee with no legs, Crip held court outside on the concrete steps of the lower grandstand. For the unfortunate students that were spiraling down in a losing streak, Crip extended betting credit for periods of one week. If accounts were not settled by pay day, Crip’s associates collected the debt, using baseball bats.
The “peanut man” was a vendor, who could drop a bag of roasted peanuts down your shirt pocket from ten grandstand rows away. Reverend Bethune (the “Gangster Priest”) held services in a 7th Ward bar-room and concealed his betting money from his wife in a tobacco can buried in the tomato garden. On days like the Louisiana Derby or New Orleans Handicap, there were professional pickpockets, with names like “Rooster the Booster” and “Mike the Spike” that glided through the crowd like sharks at high tide. Retired boxer “Red Huss” had the iron will and patience of Job. With a memorized list of mud sires, Huss only played the ponies on days that it rained. Let the record show that Red Huss went out a winner.
There were cab drivers, school teachers, dock workers that altered their daily schedule so that they could bet the Daily Double. The mail man had a season pass and was not bashful about altering his route and standing in the $2 betting line with his leather mail pouch strung over his shoulder. Maybe the strangest character of all was “The Captain.” An ex (high ranking) cop that long ago gave up on betting anything with four legs, “Cap” still showed up in the Racing Secretary Office every day and handicapped the entire card.
In New Orleans there are no apologies for superstition or voodoo. It was Fair Grounds’ horse players that invented the “Holy Ghost” betting system. The abiding principle behind the “Holy Ghost” betting system is that events happen in sequence of “threes.” For example---if the program #4 horse would win the sixth and seventh races then word of the “Holy Ghost” would flash through the Fair Grounds betting galleys like an electrical current. “Bet the #4 horse,” people would remind each other. “It’s the Holy Ghost.”
The old characters have passed away but, thanks to a long list of restaurants, the link between Fair Grounds and New Orleans remains strong. The connection may have started with the Broadway figure “Diamond Jim” Brady, who opened a restaurant on Bourbon Street in 1906. Brady was a horse owner and a high stakes gambler. Brady had a habit of dropping a small diamond in every hundredth plate of spaghetti and meatballs. His restaurant catered to big money players like “Pittsburgh Phil” and “Bet A Million” Gates that passed through New Orleans every winter.
Today, the lineage of race-tracker friendly restaurants continues. A catfish po-boy before the races or dinner and drinks aftweards is standard operating procedure for many New Orleans racing fans and horsemen. There is no shortage of good restaurants to appease a losing day at the tracks or to celebrate a winning one. When it comes to throwing a party, drinking, gambling or eating out----New Orleans folks know the drill.
Garlic on the bayou. Located on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, the mysterious Mosca’s is near the top of every horseman’s list of “go to” restaurants. Talk about un-pretentious. You pull into a gravel parking lot on the edge of a cypress swamp and find your reserved table identified with a sheet of yellow legal paper. A late night hot spot for gamblers and underworld figures back in the days, Moscas is now a quietly understated hideaway. “Nothing stays the same,” said owner Johnny Mosca, who used to own and breed thoroughbreds.
Family recipes that date back to 1946 are still in vogue at Mosca’s. Don’t go there if you are in a hurry. Every piping hot dish is an old school, classical Italian masterpiece. Take heed. A sizzling pan of Oysters Mosca under cheese and bread crumbs or the homemade Italian sausage can be addictive.
Loud, friendly and fun, Mandina’s is the ultimate New Orleans “neighborhood restaurant. Cherished by droves of regulars (politicians, judges, newspaper journalists and a cadre of race horse trainers), the origins of Mandina’s trace back to the late 1800’s, when a Sicilian immigrant named Palermo Mandina opened a grocery store on Canal Street. Today, the mandatory restaurant appetizer is a steaming cup of turtle soup, spiked with a splash of sherry. Take your pick between the rout almandine or red beans and rice with Italian sausage as house favorites.
The wash and rinse cycle of Hurricane Katrina left Mandina’s with six feet of water in the building for over two weeks. Waiter Steve Storey has worked at Mandina’s for over 30 years. “I evacuated to Dallas after the storm and thought about working in the hotel business,” Storey said. “But I guess this funky old place pulled me back to the city.”
Set in a small, comfortable home, Brigtsen’s is where fine food and hospitality often finish in a “dead heat.” The owner, Frank Brigtsen, is a box seat holder at Fair Grounds and enjoys the challenge of handicapping. Jockeys Robby Albarado, Shaun Bridgmohan and Jamie Theriot are frequent guests. Another satisfied regular is trainer Neil Pessin, who usually chooses between the paneed rabbit or the sautéed red snapper. “If you are a horseman and don’t have reservations, Frank (the owner) can get you in off the also-eligible list,” Pessin declares with a grin. “Frank is knowledgeable about the game and it makes the whole experience a real pleasure.”
Restraint is a requirement when eating at Manale’s on Napoleon Avenue. After a serving of barbeque shrimp, the impulse is to drop the bib and lick the plate. Founded in 1913, the quiet, vintage style Italian-Creole restaurant is not a well-kept secret. The waiting area can get crowded. Visitors browse the dimly lit exhibition of photos of Hollywood celebrities, National Football League quarterbacks, boxers, singers, and jockeys that have been customers. New Orleans’ favorite son Archie Manning and his family drop in at random. Finish up your meal with a rum soaked Creole bread pudding and you can consider yourself a dues paying member of the “Who Dat Nation.”
If you are looking for a low-sodium, strip-mall bran and yogurt franchise then the ancient and innocuous Bozo’s is not for you. Bozo’s is a family-tavern atmosphere with the best cornmeal-battered fried oysters in the Western Hemisphere. Without any attempt at marketing or advertising, the old hole-in-the-wall is usually packed with race-trackers. After a bowl of Bozo’s andouille gumbo and a cold beer, you are ready to change leads and head off to the races.
A hop, skip and a jump from the race track, Liuzza’s is a weathered neighborhood restaurant and bar that has served soft shell crabs and beer in a frosted mug since 1947. Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Vince Vance and the Valiants and Bob Marley are on the juke box.
Dat’s all folks. Just remember when you go to the Fair Grounds---if some jockey wins two races in a row then go to the closest betting window and get down on the “Holy Ghost.”