01/16/2010 12:00AM

Night card brings new energy to Fair Grounds


NEW ORLEANS - Neither power failure nor steady rain could derail Fair Grounds as it brought night racing back to New Orleans on Friday, the first of three scheduled Friday night cards in what the track is calling the Starlight Racing Series.

The stars were not visible through the clouds, and a power failure that hit parts of the city from 3:45 to 4:30 p.m. pushed the first post back one hour to 6 p.m., but that didn't stop a younger, bigger-than-usual crowd from attending the nine-race card.

To set the atmosphere, Fair Grounds redecorated the clubhouse, using curtains, club-style couches, and mood lighting, and hired a live band, The Wise Guys, to entertain.

Downstairs, on the track apron, the track had erected a tent attached to the grandstand. Inside the tent, a crowd of mostly young professionals crowded betting machines set up for the evening, while go-go dancers dressed in jockey gear entertained them between races. Charbroiled oysters from a popular local restaurant, Drago's, kept the crowd fed.

"This is not your grandfather's racetrack experience," said Fair Grounds president Austin Miller. "The whole program is designed to introduce new people to the sport."

Meanwhile, up in the clubhouse restaurant a more typical racetrack crowd filled every table.

As on the traditionally busy days, like Thanksgiving and Louisiana Derby Day, the parking lot was nearly filled, and many chose to park on streets in the neighborhood.

"I would guess it is double an average Friday," Miller said. "I'm tickled to have something new to offer night life in New Orleans."

Fair Grounds, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., does not release daily attendance or handle figures.

A clientele new to racing could be found all over the racetrack, including the paddock, where first-time Fair Grounds attendee Chrisy Noble watched the horses being saddled for the seventh race.

"I think it's fantastic, an amazingly diverse crowd," said Noble, 28, from New Orleans. "It's an inexpensive night where you can enjoy yourself."

With the hour delay, the ninth and final race went off at 9:52 p.m.

Few horsemen complained about the change to their evening routine, though most were awake well past their regular bed time.

"They did it right," trainer Richie Scherer said. "It's great to see people out at the races."

Fair Grounds installed lights in the 1980s and has occasionally scheduled first post for as late as 3 p.m., with later races having to be run under the lights. But Friday's card was the first time Fair Grounds had scheduled an entire card at night.

The next Friday night of racing is scheduled for Feb. 19, with the final Friday night card on March 19.

Churchill Downs Inc. is in the process of installing lights at its flagship track in Louisville, Ky., and has scheduled six nights of racing there this year. Last year, three cards were run under temporary lights at Churchill Downs.