Longtime New Orleans-based Turf writer and handicapper Bob Fortus of the Times-Picayune will be inducted into the Press Box Hall of Fame at Fair Grounds Race Course Jan. 18, it was announced Dec. 30.The Press Box Hall of Fame honors those who have contributed significantly to media coverage of Fair Grounds and New Orleans racing. Membership currently stands at 29.
Fortus, 62, born in St. Louis, but a resident of the Crescent City for more than three decades, will become the first addition to that Fair Grounds honor roll since 2003. Shortly after the induction ceremonies, a photograph of Fortus will be hung along the press box hallway to accompany those of its 30 other members.
“Naturally, I’m honored,” said Fortus, “but one of the best things about all this is that I will become a member of the same club ‘Black Cat’ LaCombe is in.”
The reference was to Fortus’ late friend and locally legendary Fair Grounds publicity director Allen “Black Cat” LaCombe, who Fortus was quick to name as his favorite peer during his own journalistic career. “Black Cat was a very special person. I was lucky to get to work in the same room with him for a lot of years. In my opinion, Fair Grounds should name its Press Box after him. Maybe, I’ll be lucky enough to have my picture hung next to his.”
Fortus was also asked who was at the top of his list of favorite horses witnessed at the local oval during his own tenure atop the Fair Grounds facility.
“Obviously, Risen Star comes to mind right away,” said Fortus of the Louie Roussel III color bearer who won the Louisiana Derby (gr. III), Preakness (gr. I) and Belmont Stakes (gr. I) in 1988. “I’ve seen a lot of very good horses run here over the years, but he stands out right away because he was so big.”
When asked to name the major events that occurred at the Crescent City oval during his own years on the local scene, Fortus was quick to recall the 1993 fire which burned the facility to the ground, as well as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the rebuilt stands were almost completely destroyed once again.
“When Fair Grounds burned down in 1993, I had just left the building maybe 15 minutes earlier,” said Fortus. “I got a phone call from Marge and Jim Turnbull of Daily Racing Form, who were still working in the press box at that time. They told me I’d better come back because a lot of fire trucks were coming through the gate.
“I came right back to the race track because I live so close, but by the time I got back I could tell the building was going to burn down,” Fortus said. “The wind was very strong and there was going to be nothing to stop it. It was over for the building. It was a horrible thing to see, but fortunately there were no fatalities.
“I was covering the races at Saratoga when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans,” Fortus said, “and it was quite awhile before I was able to get back into town, but I remember walking on the backstretch with (Fair Grounds general manager at the time) Randy Soth about a month after the storm. I remember seeing a lot of dead fish on the ground and looking at that statue of a boy holding up his boot that stood on the apron. That statue had been turned around 180 degrees by the storm, and that’s a very heavy statue.”