With thanks and credit to Marshall Blevins and Coady Photography –
Most of these photos were taken with their equipment
Evangeline Downs: A Snapshot
My first visit to Louisiana, specifically New Orleans, included a detour to Evangeline Downs where my friend Marshall Blevins now works, as a track photographer for Coady Photography. It’s a dream job for anyone bitten by the racing and photography bug. Same career as at Keeneland, just in a new setting, in the heart of Cajun country.
Over the years of following racing and especially since beginning to write the Jockey of the Month column for Jockey World this year, I’ve heard a lot about how many jockeys come from this region of the U.S. and rise to prominence nationally. Yet beyond the Fair Grounds, I had not heard of any other Louisiana tracks other than the bush tracks that were referred to now and then when speaking of where Cajun jockeys got their start, often at a young age.
I have a little casual hobby of collecting tracks, so to speak, and while it has to stay casual due to being rooted in Kentucky most of the year to finish my degree, I welcomed the chance to add a new track to the collection, as well to visit Marshall.
Since I hadn’t heard of any Louisiana tracks beyond those already named, Evangeline Downs didn’t bring up any connotations. I didn’t even know they raced at night until shortly before my visit. I did a little research ahead of time and saw they have a casino on-site too. It was my first visit to a track with a casino, and I’d heard so much about how that can be poorly managed or leave the host track still “suffering,” in spite of the extra infusion of gambling dollars.
Admittedly, my two days at the track wasn’t enough to give me more than a cursory glance at how things were managed at Evangeline, but I left with a very positive impression.
I saw the casino once, tucked inside a building behind the grandstand. A few restaurants were near the casino. I didn’t eat at any of them when I was there, and even if it was to keep people from leaving and not being able to continue gambling, I did like that it had actual restaurants with table service available to the general public. Food stands are fine just to fill you up, but there could have been long days I’ve spent at the track where having a full meal and a guaranteed place to sit would have been quite welcome. The only hindrance to that was that smoking was allowed indoors, probably common for most casino areas. It certainly was that way when I visited Las Vegas, and was like that here as well.
But back to the track itself. I actually got to experience the best of both worlds, accompanying Marshall around the track to get photos with the Coady Photography cameras, and also to visit the backstretch one morning.
What stood out the most about being there was the friendliness. One man, I don’t think I ever caught his name or ties to the track, would stop by the photographer’s office both nights just to say hi, and he had previously brought Marshall and Lori gumbo he made. Even standing by the rail during one race, when I chose to watch with the patrons instead of shoot the race on the other side, a man struck up a conversation about admiring what I do (the track photography part) and we had a friendly talk about that. I told him I was really just visiting my friend and had been allowed to take photos here, but had learned from working for Coady at Keeneland this past April that it was definitely my calling. He said he had a buddy with a horse in the race about to go off.
I love Keeneland and its grand tradition of racing. I wouldn’t want to trade places with anybody during the months they race, and everyone there was great to me. But to visit a track with this much hospitality from the local people, to see the jockeys even pose a minute for Marshall on the way to the track, and to see the people and families with young kids gather at the rail, was a great experience. It was also great to see all the people troop into the office wanting win photos and workout photos. I’ve felt a sense of community at the few tracks where I’ve so far been privileged to visit the backstretch, a sense of family of sorts due to all being invested in the racing game, whether emotionally or financially or both. But this went a little beyond that. It felt even more close-knit. My favorite memory was from after the last race on the last night of my visit. A man and visiting relatives, including kids of varying ages, all tried to gather around the computer to see how close the finish had been. Their horse had prevailed but so narrowly you almost couldn’t see him, practically entirely shadowed by his rival on the outside. It was one of the closest win photos I’ve ever seen, looking quite close to being a dead heat. The trainer exclaimed over how tight a finish it had been and called everyone in to see how close it was. One of the youngest children with him looked at the image on the screen and didn’t understand all the fuss. “What’s wrong?” she kept asking, even when they patiently told her nothing was wrong, it was just such a narrow win. That was a cute moment too, watching her trying to grasp the vagaries of a near dead-heat, as the trainer expressed relief that it had not been a dead heat so they didn’t have to split the earnings. Lori, also Evangeline’s track photographer, looked at his winner and commented it was good they hadn’t trimmed the whiskers on his muzzle. I looked again – it really had been necessary for the horse to have the whiskers to identify him as being in front.
The jubilant family left with their win photos and we closed up the racing office. New Orleans beckoned to me then, another new world to explore the following day, but I knew I’d want to come back to Evangeline sometime. Its friendly vibe alone is worth coming back to.
Marshall also echoed this when I asked her about working at Evangeline.
“I love the people here – how friendly they are, how they talk, how they show up to the races still ready to just have a good time. I wasn’t able to have the same kind of community at Keeneland as I have here. Everyone has been so welcoming and that might be the best part. I’ve been fishing and four wheeling and swimming and boat driving and it’s all thanks to Coady Photography and the amazing people in Cajun country. I also really enjoy seeming the same horses run back so often.”
Working at Keeneland is wonderful, and it is a track that will always be special to both of us, as to so many people. But it didn’t take me long at all to see the charm a track like Evangeline also has, and to fall under the spell of Cajun hospitality just as Marshall has. It was a perfect new addition to my collection, and even more than that I can see how it is a great community to work in, a community that welcomed me too for the brief time I was there.