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Letters from the Backside



Enter Mr. Brown.

“If you want to write about something, a journal or autobiography, you got to kind of live it,” Mr. Brown, now 66 and lean as a riding crop, said in an interview in the track cafeteria one morning after a few hours of riding.


That is the idea precisely.


These letters, from grooms, trainers, jockeys’ agents and even the track’s chaplain, create a panorama of life on the backside of the 139-year old Fair Grounds, one of the country’s most important winter racing destinations.

– Campbell Robertson

Few cities have been rhapsodized about as frequently and floridly as New Orleans, and few sports have gotten as much literary attention as horse racing (most recently in Jaimy Gordon’s novel “Lord of Misrule,” which won a National Book Award). But it is rarely the folks in the thick of things who do the rhapsodizing. That is the point of the project, Mr. Himelstein says: everybody involved must want to tell the stories, not just to have stories told about them.

For seven months the barns sit quiet, endure small repairs, get new coats of paint. Watchmen walk through the quiet, listening to their own footsteps echo, or fill the hours with phone conversations, one hand on the phone, the other on the steering wheel of the backstretch golf cart. Sixteen workers preparing stalls for the horses, preparing rooms for those who will come to care for the horses. 




In October, trucks filled with horses arrive from Canada, Kentucky, Bossier City. The people arrive from across the Americas—jockeys, groomsmen, hotwalkers, and trainers, driving through the night or catching planes. The backside fills up again and the old patterns are reestablished. Friends are hailed, acquaintances nodded to. Rivalries mellow into respect.


The backside is a world unto itself—the Horsemen’s Café for nourishment of the body, the chapel for sustenance, and empty parking lots for soccer games. Over a game of cards, stories are swapped and horses of yesteryear called to mind.

The racing world is measured in distances and time—furlongs, lengths, fifths of seconds define victory and defeat for horses and humans. For those involved in the sport, another kind of time and distance becomes central— miles from home, time apart from family.

During the first months of 2011, seventeen writers composed Letters from the Backside. Through the letters we get a view of the months of work and worry, small joys and pleasures that go into creating the two minutes of racing. These letters cross the distance between the backside and the grandstand, between the Fair Grounds and other places called home.




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