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The Quarters Return To Evangeline Downs!

Cattle could roam the Louisiana grasslands au large , with no fences confining them, necessitating the kind of expert horsemanship that became a way of life for many. Vacancies were rare. The track opened April 28, Weekend parking lot surveys from indicated that some 60 percent of attendees came from outside Acadiana. Conni Castille is a folklorist and documentary filmmaker at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she teaches film. One possibility would play a pivotal role in the fate of the track. Herpin holds hundreds of Louisiana track wins, including victories at Evangeline, Delta and Jefferson Downs. For the people of Carencro, the more troubling question was whether their venerable old racetrack could remain in business without video poker. Their dream would not come cheap. The Carencro site was selected and construction began on the track and the grandstand soon after. Along with hotels, many fine restaurants opened up on the Evangeline Thruway, clustering near the track. We want money too. To dispel skepticism among the operators of other Louisiana tracks, Roussell and Ashy took the plunge. Courtesy of the Collection of Charles Ashy. Evangeline Downs Director of Racing Charles Ashy 2nd from left and Norman Faulk introduce retired jockey Eddie Acaro, one of the greatest jockeys in the history of American thoroughbred racing. Some opted to remain in their hometowns, while others wanted to earn money for college. Horsemanship was woven through the Cajun and Creole culture of the region, and the track became the nexus for those traditions. Ashy recalls an afternoon when two managers noticed a furniture delivery truck pull up to the gate just before post time for the first race. The track generated income for trainers, veterinarians, farriers, tack suppliers, clubhouse waiters and the managers greeting people at the gate. Nobody had ordered any deliveries that day. Handling horses had been a part of Cajun life, a skill perfected through the cattle ranching that Acadians practiced in Canada and brought with them when they migrated to Louisiana in For the Creoles, the business of herding cattle and riding horses on the open prairies dates back even earlier. If we do this, we got it made. The changes in the industry disrupted the livelihoods of the people whose lives revolved around horse racing. Not all the great riders wanted to be career jockeys. The managers watched, puzzled, as the driver walked to the back of the truck, rolled open the freight door and installed the ramp. The dark dome of the night sky over Carencro no longer flares to life at the start of the springtime racing season. Why not here? Evangeline Downs made it possible. Despite the boom, Evangeline Downs was not immune to the new forms of gambling roiling through the racing industry nationwide. Racing fans visit the para-mutual windows on race day. The promise of economic benefits had persuaded the Lafayette Police Jury to endorse the track proposal in The founders of Evangeline Downs went further to ensure economic advantages for the community by writing and promoting the passage of new legislation regulating profits. Though video poker bolstered revenues during its first four years at Evangeline Downs, the debate among Lafayette Parish residents grew especially fierce in the mids. The hard work demanded new outlets for play and performance, giving rise to the legendary bush tracks of Acadiana. In the meantime, horse racing remained on the Carencro track through the meet while the new racetrack, grandstand, and clubhouse were under construction in Opelousas. Ashy handed each attendee a fact sheet then addressed everyone as plainly as he could. Since , all operations have been conducted at the Opelousas facility. Richard; and special thanks to Charles Ashy, B.{/INSERTKEYS}{/PARAGRAPH} They accomplished that goal in building Evangeline Downs, and they accomplished it again in saving it. For Ashy, what mattered most was finding the means to ensure the survival of the horse culture that had created Evangeline Downs. Visitors soon discovered the appeal of Cajun and Creole hospitality—and cuisine. Although the competition was usually friendly, bush track betting could get a bit raucous. For many young bush track jockeys, Evangeline Downs became a rite of passage and provided them a chance through close family and community ties. They dreamt of a venue where the centuries-long horseracing traditions of Acadiana would attract thousands of racing fans to Lafayette Parish, just as people flocked to Hialeah Race Track in Florida or Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. With the support of Governor Edwin Edwards, riverboat casinos were legalized in , followed by video poker in The legislation allowed for local communities to opt out and fold if they decided they no longer wanted to play by way of a simple referendum. On weekends, neighbors gathered and horse owners trailered in their stock to compete in regular races, some responding to a specific challenge from another horseman. At the start of its 14th season in April , newspapers reported that the track employed local residents with an annual payroll of more than a million dollars. Boyd Gaming purchased the track in Landry Parish got a hell of a deal, too. {PARAGRAPH}{INSERTKEYS}Subscribe today to support our mission and contributors. The relocation was set in motion when Lafayette Parish voters rejected video poker in a referendum. Donald Cravins, D-Arnaudville, was chomping at the bit to get the track moved to his parish by proposing a acre facility. The news was also good for folks in the business of breeding, training and caring for horses in Acadiana. Landry Parish was reckoned at roughly 1, The mile move north up I would keep the track close enough for horse racing to remain alive in Acadiana. None in Alabama. In , with the projected move to St. Landry, St. At bush tracks, Cajun boys as young as five or six mounted horses and rode until they could apprentice at sanctioned tracks like Evangeline Downs, where the opportunity of a professional racing career loomed. Landry Parish and the option of adding a casino that would include slot machines in place, Evangeline Downs owners B. In nearby St. People no longer had to be physically present at the race where they were wagering—attendees at Evangeline Downs could bet on races at the Fairgrounds in New Orleans and monitor the results on clubhouse televisions. Little by little, Ashy and the other businessmen sold their vision to those willing to make the gamble. Mayor Angelle hinted that the track had other options. Stemmans owned and operated a bush track known as Carencro Raceways from The bush tracks became the training grounds of a number of notable jockeys hailing from Acadiana. Economic benefits in the form of increased horse racing purses and tax revenues to St Landry Parish came immediately after the Evangeline Downs Casino opened. Not everyone ate at the clubhouse. The challenge for any track is to keep purses high enough to attract—and retain—horses, riders and fans. When the stalls were finished and ready to receive horses, Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival Queen Lydia Gonzales and General Track Manager Richard Thompson marked the occasion by presenting a sack of carrots and a bale of hay to the first horse off the trailer, remembered to this day by many as Rain Flower, the four-year-old colt of trainer Pola Benoit. The track drew gamblers from Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas who placed bets, dined in the clubhouse, and stayed in area hotels. And we all gonna try to get along and save [the industry]. But continue driving north, toward Opelousas, and the sky gradually brightens. Like it or not, slots, off track betting, and video poker saved Evangeline Downs and its culture, just as they have sustained racetracks around the country. Beginning in , during the nine seasons when Herpin was competing at Evangeline Downs, he was also attending the University of Southwestern Louisiana now University of Louisiana at Lafayette , where he earned multiple degrees that carried him onward to pharmaceutical school. The community planners who dreamed of a qualifying racetrack in had set out to preserve and promote the local horse industry and its rich legacy in Acadiana. Televised via satellite, Off Track Betting OTB allowed each track within a state to offer their races to other tracks in that state. I can tell you that for a fact. Dennis Herpin, a jockey from Morse, began riding bush tracks in Carencro at 11, sometimes competing against a horse with nothing in the saddle but a clanging cowbell or a live chicken for a jockey. At the Cresswell Lane exit, the big lights again illuminate the smooth, dusty oval of the track, and fans still fill the grandstand of a new Evangeline Downs, sharing in another chapter in the long history of horsemanship in Acadiana. Landry Parish, attitudes toward video poker were a little friendlier. Nevertheless, the stadium lights of Evangeline Downs burned like a beacon for more than 50 years, drawing to it wiry Cajun bush track riders from across Acadiana and sportsmen from places much further away. Though the new business model provided the higher purses that attract good races and enable horsemen to continue doing what they love, OTB came with a risk: betting on televised races could diminish the number of customers gathering in the grandstands to watch the races, dining in the clubhouse, lining up for concessions or crossing state lines to spend money in Louisiana. Instead of furniture, 30 or so racing fans hurried out of the back of the truck. They already made me do projections on how to close that racetrack.