The 1988 Kentucky Derby was the last one that I ever covered for “The Lexington Herald-Leader.” It might have been my most favorite one, too.

There were just so many storylines to cover. Like the filly, Winning Colors, who was going to try to join the ranks of Regret and Genuine Risk as the only fillies in the storied history of the “Run for the Roses” to ever defeat the colts, and properly wear the garland of roses around their neck.

So many stories to write. Like the stubborn, talented, and worthy Forty Niner, who carried the colors of the famed Claiborne Farm into the Derby. A race that the farm — founded by the great Bull Hancock — had never won before Swale had done in 1984. A race that the farm — now run by the brilliant, yet, shy, Seth Hancock — had never captured since 1984. A race that the farm that was synonymous with greatness, so treasured to win — again.

So many characters to unveil and reveal. Like the venerable Woody Stephens, who hailed from the same little hometown that I did — in Midway Kentucky. Like the young, brash, bold, and innovative D. Wayne Lukas, who had converted all his skill at training quarter horses into a wave of success as the game’s best conditioner of Thoroughbreds. Like Bill Shoemaker, the game’s greatest rider, who was quickly riding off into the shadows of his fabulous career, and,  somehow, was tied to a colt by the name of Lively One. Shoemaker was came. His steed? Not so lively.

But the tale I really longed to tell was the one of Risen Star, his part-owner, full-time trainer Louie Roussel; and his part-owner, part-singer/entertainer, and full-time car dealer Ronnie Lamarque.

They were the ones that captured my mind, and my heart. They were the ones that intrigued me; humored me; opened up to me; and gave so much to me. They were the ones that I wanted to introduce to the reading public — who was more enamored with the written word back then, and who would take the time to read.

Simply put, they were the story that I longed to write; describe; tell; and give.

(Louie Roussel with a picture of the great Risen Star / Photo Courtesy of nola.com)

I had gotten to know Louie J. Roussel III several years before the 1988 Kentucky Derby. His family, at one time, owned the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. And Louie — born the son of the powerful, successful businessman and political kingmaker Louis J. Roussel Jr. and Lucy Cocchiara in the year 1946 — was every bit as entertaining as Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, and Cajun folklore all rolled into one.

(Snidely Whiplash, of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” Fame)

Louie resembled a whippet. Long and lean, with a mustache that reminded me of Snidely Whiplash. (You will have to google that character and get a quick glimpse.) He was clever, and learned, having graduated from Louisiana State University in 1967 and then from the law school  at Loyola University New Orleans in 1970. He soon became an accomplished Metairie attorney with barrister abilities that few had seen or witnessed.

But — despite all his training as an attorney and his father’s insistence that he become a businessman with a suit and tie ensemble to match — Louie had a knack for the extraordinary; the flare for the flamboyant; and the ability to twist a common thread of a story into a spell-bounding novel of intrigue. More importantly, Louie, as much as his father might fight, had a knack on how to train a Thoroughbred. He was a horse trainer. True to the bone.

And, Louie was my kind of guy. Entertaining. Fun. And, a guy who never met a stranger. We quickly became good friends. He never missed a chance to call me by name. He never, ever, ever once passed my way without stopping. Each time, grabbing my hand and shoulder. And, he ALWAYS asked how my mom and dad were doing. Always.

But the scar on Louie’s neck always reminded me that I — along with others — was lucky to even know him. In 1977, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Reluctantly, and only after much lobbying by his mother and father, Louie agreed to have surgery to remove the malignant tumor. Three years later, he had it done again.

It was a constant reminder for both Louie and his friends how fragile life can be. How fickle and tumultuous life can be. Yet, Louie never forgot. And, he prayed for thanks every day. Until the fall of 1987, when he was getting ready to run Risen Star in the Minstrel Stakes at Louisiana Downs. Before the race, Louie called Sister Mary Vincent, who was with the Little Sisters of the Poor in New Orleans. Louie promised Sister Mary that if Risen Star — a well bred son of Secretariat whom Louie had bought along with his longtime friend Ronnie Lemarque — could win, he would donate 10% of the purse to help the nuns buy food and provide shelter for the city’s homeless.

Sure enough, Risen Star won. And, in every race after that, no matter if they won or not, Louie donated to Sister Mary and the nuns 10% of the purse that Risen Star earned.

In the spring of 1988, Louie and Ronnie came to Kentucky. I went out to greet them, along with Risen Star, who had won the G3 Louisiana Derby and now was a true rising star along the trail to the Kentucky Derby. Every morning, I would go to Keeneland. We would watch, wait and hope. Then the striking colt — bred by Arthur Hancock — won the Lexington Stakes in impressive fashion.

The ticket to the Derby was stamped.

(Risen Star / Photo Courtesy of Pinterest)

I asked then if I could do a daily diary on Risen Star leading up to the Run for the Roses for “The Lexington Herald-Leader.” My good friend, Louie, quickly agreed. So, every morning, I would rise, along with Risen Star. The trainer and I would huddle in the tack room at Churchill Downs. And, we would just talk.

Ronnie would come rolling in, singing and dancing, of course. Risen Star would roll around the race track, zipping and dancing, of course. And, Louie and I would tell story after story. And, we laughed a lot.

There were concerns, of course. Louie added extra security at the barn, just to make sure no one had access to his beautiful colt. No one. If you didn’t have Louie’s blessing, you didn’t get access.

Louie wiped Risen Star’s legs every morning after his daily ritual to the track. He wanted to make sure they were cool and tight. Just like the trainer. And, as fate would have it, they passed his inspection.

The days were long. The nights even longer. Louie graciously declined most invitations to dine elegantly, and attend functions and parties. Instead, nearly every morning, I found him in the tack room. Just waking up. He had spent the night there.

He loved his horse. And, it showed.

On that first Saturday in May, Risen Star suddenly and without warning found himself hopelessly behind many in the field and wide into the track. For some reason, rider Eddie Delahoussaye had taken back. And, all the while, the filly — Winning Colors — was carving out uncontested and winning fractions on the front end.

Try as he might, Risen Star — forever wide throughout the 11/4 endurance test — rallied mightily, but had to settle for third. Winning Colors had become the third filly in the history of the Derby to win. Forty Niner, ridden expertly by Pat Day, fired late but came up a neck short.

The next morning, I went to the backside. I found Louie, Ronnie and Risen Star in their normal spots. I said I was sorry. I will never, ever forget Louie’s reply.

“For what? What are you sorry for Gene? You believed. You had faith. Never be sorry for that. Never. It is what makes you special,” said Louie Roussel, who still trains horses for himself and his good friend, Ronnie Lemarque. “It is what sets you apart.”

I didn’t get to go on to the Preakness Stakes, or the Belmont, for that matter. But I watched on TV as Risen Star rose again.

He won the Preakness Stakes by 11/2 lengths over Brian’s Time, Derby winner Winning Colors and local favorite Private Terms.

Three weeks later, Risen Star captured the Belmont Stakes in a fashion that reminded many of his great dad — Secretariat. He won by 143/4 lengths in a final time of 2:26 2/5 — which is the fourth fastest running behind A.P. Indy, Easy Goer and the great Secretariat.

For all his efforts, Risen Star was voted the Eclipse Award as 1988’s best 3YO colt.

I called Louie before he was to accept his award that night. We spoke on the phone. Before I could congratulate him, Louie asked about my mom and dad and their health. He asked about my own children, and theirs, as well. And, then he said, almost pre-empting the conversion:

“Never forget to hug those kids, Gene,” Louie said. “They are what makes the world worth living.”

In 1992, turf writer Neil Milbert wrote this about Risen Star and Louie and their commitment to help the Little Sister of the Poor:

When Risen Star was second in his next race, Roussel called and said: Sister, I`m sorry he didn`t win, but I`m still going to give you 10 percent of the purse, and I`m going to keep on doing it.

Sister Mary Vincent seemingly was taken aback.

Louie, she chided. We don`t pray for him to win. We only pray to St. Joseph to strengthen his legs.

Roussel remembered that after Risen Star suffered a tear in his suspensory ligament in training the week before the Belmont. He phoned Sister Mary Vincent, asking the sisters to send an SOS to St. Joseph regarding Risen Star`s legs because he was injured.

To his amazement, Sister Mary Vincent told him, Louie, we`re not praying to strengthen his legs. We`re praying for him to win, because we desperately need that $100,000!

She was referring to the orders 10 percent cut of the $1 million bonus jackpot Risen Star stood to win. And she hastened to add the postscript to the nuns prayers:

We`ve told the Lord we want a big margin, so we don`t have to worry. These old people can`t take a close finish.

Today, the Fair Grounds will pay tribute to Risen Star. The track will host the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes, which has attracted a stellar group — all of whom are being pointed with hopes aplenty toward the “Road to the Kentucky Derby.”

I hope that some — just like Risen Star — make it. But I doubt, seriously, that any of them can compare. To the horse. Or, to the man who helped make him.

Both of them are legends. And, worth remembering and thanking. I, for one, hope Louie is there to give out the trophy. And, it would only be fitting if the winners would give 10% of the purse to the Little Sisters of the Poor, right?