This Saturday marks the 107th running of the Louisiana Derby, a Kentucky Derby prep race for 3-year-old Thoroughbreds at the distance of 1 3/16 miles that for the first time will be contested spectator-free at the Fair Grounds Race Course due to COVID-19. This global pandemic has been compared to the 1918 Spanish Flu that caused an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide, including approximately 650,000 people in the U.S. Did the Spanish Flu, the influenza pandemic of 1918–1919, likewise impact horse racing in New Orleans and the Louisiana Derby a century ago?
Although the state’s Derby race was not called the Louisiana Derby until 1920, the Crescent City Jockey Club held its predecessor, the Crescent City Derby, beginning in 1894 at the Fair Grounds and awarded a $1,500 first-place purse to its inaugural winner, the 3-year-old colt Buckwa. The race was not held in the two years following, but returned in 1897 at a distance of 1 1/8 miles and continued annually until 1908, with winner’s purse size increasing during those years from $2,000 to $7,825.
A decade before the Spanish Flu impacted the world, the Louisiana Legislature halted racing in New Orleans. Despite the resolution of a “race track war” between the Fair Grounds and two other competing local tracks in 1906, “a once noble sport was being turned into a racket,” stated Louis J. Kennedy, author of the Fair Grounds’ 1947 Diamond Jubilee publication, The Fair Grounds Race Course: A Time-Honored American Institution.
“One of the oldest and most sensitive of human pastimes, thoroughbred horse racing cannot be cheapened,” wrote Kennedy. “So aptly named the ‘Sport of Kings,’ unless maintained on a high plane, kept free of shady practices and obnoxious influences, it cannot hope to survive. There is no need for the so-called ‘moralist’ or the reformer to step in. Once grasping politicians and unscrupulous gamblers take over, the sport is doomed.”
Foreshadowing racing’s demise in December 1907, Louisiana’s Lieutenant Governor J. Y. Sanders announced, “There can be no doubt that racing as presently carried on in this community is demoralizing in its tendencies….Sunday racing, night racing and racing enterprises that operate all the year are intolerable nuisances.”
Kennedy asserted that New Orleans horsemen as well as the public at large had wearied of the sport. “Those few who really had the best interests of the sport at heart, a coterie of men trying their level best to free racing of obnoxious influences, soon realized the helplessness of their situation. Rather than see their favorite sport dragged into the mire, they now welcomed promise of legislation that would put a quietus to it.”
In 1908, the Louisiana Legislature passed Act 57—known as the Locke Law—prohibiting gambling on horse racing and ending the sport in the city until 1915. The Fair Grounds had already held its full race meeting in early 1908 that concluded on March 14 with the Crescent City Derby, won by West Coast shipper Meelick and ridden by Classic-winning jockey Eddie Dugan, who captured the Preakness three months later aboard Royal Tourist.
After a six-year hiatus of the sport, a newly formed organization called the Business Men’s Racing Association acquired a five-year lease on the Fair Grounds track and resumed racing on January 1, 1915. Remaining consistent with the rules of the Locke Law, the Association did not receive betting revenue but relied upon fees that ranged from $1.50 for gate admission to $2.50 for admission plus paddock access. Although the Crescent City Derby was not renewed that year, the 8-year-old mare Useeit—the future dam of the 1924 Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby champion Black Gold—broke the 6 furlong track record on January 30, 1915, in a time of 1:12.
The Association also did not hold the Crescent City Derby during the 1916 or 1917 race meetings at the Fair Grounds. In March 1918, outbreaks of the Spanish Flu were first identified in the U.S., but the first reported cases in New Orleans did not occur until September that year. The 1918 racing season had previously concluded on February 12 but again did not include the Crescent City Derby; instead, the Crescent City Handicap was featured as the season’s richest race, awarding $4,550 to its 5-year-old winner, Sasin.
By the fall of 1918, daily life in New Orleans was significantly impacted by influenza. The first death by the virus in the city was reported on September 29, and there were estimated to be 7,000 active cases locally within one week. The mayor of New Orleans along with the Board of Health ordered the closure of schools, churches, theaters, and other gathering places including sporting events, as well as restrictions on passengers on street cars. These restrictions were short-lived, for as new cases began trending downward a few weeks later in late October, normal operations of schools and businesses were resumed as soon as mid-November.
The virus was not completely eradicated in New Orleans since cases continued to be reported throughout the winter, with more than 54,000 people in the city being diagnosed with influenza during a seven-month period, 3,489 of whom died from the pandemic. Yet as the ban on gatherings and sporting events had been lifted in late 1918, efforts to curb the Spanish Flu did not halt racing in New Orleans and the 1919 race meeting was scheduled to open as usual on January 1. While the sport dodged the pandemic, disaster struck the Fair Grounds itself just days before New Year’s Opening Day.
“Burning of the grandstand at the Fair Grounds early Saturday morning furnished one of the most spectacular fires in the history of New Orleans,” reported The Times-Picayune in its Sunday edition on December 29, 1918. Discovered by a clocker who was at the track early to watch workouts, the fire had reportedly started near a stove on the second floor of the clubhouse and soon spread to the grandstand’s roof. Flames reaching 150 feet in the air fanned by high winds destroyed the grandstand, which had been reconstructed at the Fair Grounds in 1907 utilizing a 365-foot-long grandstand originally located at the Union Park race track in St. Louis.
The Louisiana Jockey Club immediately promised to provide the financial aid necessary for the Business Men’s Racing Association to erect a temporary grandstand, ensuring the race meet would start as planned. The people of New Orleans were assured by the Sunday paper that a grandstand would be ready for Opening Day on Wednesday: “Will Rise at Once on Ashes of Structure Burned Saturday Morning.”
The Jockey Club and the Business Men’s Racing Association delivered a “made in a jiffy” grandstand for a packed crowd on Opening Day with a card of seven races highlighted by the New Year’s Day Handicap. The 1919 winter meeting at Fair Grounds proceeded as usual and ended in early March with the Closing Day 1 1/4 mile Carnival Handicap. Neither the Spanish Flu nor fire could deter horse racing in New Orleans, yet another year passed without a Derby race.
In August 1919, The Times-Picayune reported discussions among local racing circles to persuade the Association to renew the Crescent City Derby at the Fair Grounds in order to attract top class horses to New Orleans. “A $10,000 derby, for 3-year-olds at a mile and a furlong, would be sure to attract many highly-rated Kentucky Derby candidates here, as it has been proved winter racing does not take the edge off horses.” Meanwhile, it was reported that Jefferson Park racetrack, located in the adjacent Jefferson Parish, was already planning to run its own Derby on St. Patrick’s Day the following year.
Although plans for renewing the Crescent City Derby did not materialize, Jefferson Park hosted the first Louisiana Derby on March 17, 1920. More than 8,000 spectators were in attendance to see Damask, the 1-5 favorite, win the $4,975 first-place purse for the race of 1 1/8 miles.
Aside from not being run in 1921 and 1922, the Louisiana Derby continued to be held at Jefferson Park through 1931. That year, an agreement was reached between Jefferson Park and the Fair Grounds to hold a continuous season of racing dates at both tracks, with Jefferson running from Thanksgiving to late January, followed immediately by the Fair Grounds meeting. This agreement also included the transfer of the Louisiana Derby to the Fair Grounds, where it has been run annually since 1932, with the exception of 1940—1942 and 1945 (World War II) and 2006 (Hurricane Katrina rebuilding).
For those interested in reading more about the Spanish Flu in New Orleans or other major cities, we recommend this Influenza Archive website created by the University of Michigan Center for the Study of Medicine.