But it’s how many young boys found themselves on a sweltering south Louisiana Sunday afternoon—sitting atop 1200 pounds of hot, sweaty horse and getting ready for the ride of their lives. “They’d tie you on the saddle in your underwear to keep you light as possible,” said Ronald Ardoin, one of Louisiana’s leading riders. Young riders were a welcome sight at Cajun Downs in Abbeville. Kentucky Derby winner Calvin Borel’s very first race took place at Cajun Downs. He was 8 years old and sitting atop a colt named Mickey. The pair barreled down the 350-yard straight track for the first win of his life. Over 5,000 wins would follow throughout his career.
93-year-old BB Hebert has fond memories of the “good ole days” at Cajun Downs. “I trained Shane Sellers,” he tells me with his thick Cajun accent and a bit of a laugh. “His parents came to me and said, 'No one wants to play with this boy. Can you help him?’ I said I’d train him so long as they don’t sue me when he got hurt.’” The gamble paid off, with Sellers enjoying a stellar career, racing in the Kentucky Derby for 14 consecutive years and placing in the Belmont Stakes.
This bush track consisted of two straight lanes, one quarter mile, or 440 yards long, separated by rails. Alice and Doris Hebert operated the beloved track for over 50 years. They charged an entry fee of $2 for men. Women and children got in free.
The site of Cajun Downs in Abbeville is located on LA-338, across from Hebert’s Slaughterhouse and Meat Market. In his book, Cajun Racing, Ed McNamara laments that “no one would imagine that one of the best bush tracks in Louisiana history rocked there for more than 100 years.” Situated in between a sugarcane field and the home of the original owners, Clement and Eunice Hebert, the track is now a neatly manicured strip of land speckled with crawfish mounds.
Cajun Downs is known as “a breeding ground for dreams." Former owner Alice Hebert says, “Every year we’d see 10 or 15 young boys who wanted to be riders, among them Eddie Delahoussaye, Kent Desormeaux, Calvin Borel, Robby Albarado, Shane Sellers, Randy Romero, and Mark Guidry.” Sadly, the tracks gradually died out with liability issues and excessive insurance rates spelling an end of the heart and soul of Cajun Horse culture.