- Bill Finley
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Louie Roussel obviously knew he had a good one when he named Recapturetheglory, the winner of last weekend's Illinois Derby at Hawthorne. This was the one, he figured, who might just get him back to the Triple Crown, 20 years after his Risen Star won the Preakness and Belmont and finished third in the Kentucky Derby. That's why he has the name that he does. The son of Cherokee Run was going to get back to the Kentucky Derby; he was going to recapture the glory.
When Recapturetheglory, who Roussel co-owns with Ronnie Lamarque, finished second in an allowance race last year at Churchill Downs behind eventual Fountain of Youth winner Cool Coal Man, Recapturetheglory indeed showed signs that he might just make the Kentucky Derby. But would Louie Roussel?
For the last many years, Roussel didn't know what his future was as trainer -- that is if there was going to be any future at all. The same person that had so much energy that he was active -- all at the same time -- as a trainer, a lawyer and as the owner of the Fair Grounds, was grounded by severe back problems.
On December 27, 2003, Roussel won an optional claimer at Hawthorne with a horse named Intern. Then he walked away. Roussel's chronic back problems became so severe that he was not physically able to do the job of training racehorses.
Roussel, not wanting anyone to feel sorry for him, is reluctant to discuss the severity of his problems, but admits that there was a time when he feared he would never again lead a normal life.
The first surgery didn't work. A second one worked much better, but Roussel, ready to return to the racetrack, suffered another setback -- a herniated disc in his neck. That required still another surgery.
Unable to train, Roussel focused on his law practice. Someone who has been fighting the tobacco industry for more than 20 years, he was among a group of lawyers that has been battling Big Tobacco in Scott v. American Tobacco.
"Back in the eighties, my goal was to have smoking banned in public places because tobacco causes cancer," he said. "Then, nobody would listen. Now, smoking isn't allowed. I feel great about that."
Roussel, who never lost the training bug, finally started to feel somewhat normal late last year. Having never stopped owning horses, he left his main string with his assistant Lara Van Deren and took three horses of his own to the Fair Grounds. Recapturetheglory was among them.
"I felt really great this winter and said this is it, I'm going back," Roussel said. "It's worked out wonderful."
Roussel's official return came on Feb. 29 when Recapturetheglory finished third in an allowance race on the grass as the Fair Grounds. Nothing about the race suggested that he might soon emerge as a stakes horse, but Roussel was encouraged. The son of Cherokee Run, who is also the sire of War Pass, was tearing up the track in the mornings.
Roussel decided to go for it. He put up $6,000 to supplement the colt to the Triple Crown and he pointed him toward the Illinois Derby. Roussel was right. Recpaturetheglory won by four lengths under E.T. Baird. His Beyer number was a 102. The only Derby contender to run faster this year is Big Brown.
"I don't know anybody else that has a triple Beyer except for Big Brown," Roussel said. "According to the Beyers, I guess he belongs."
While Recapturetheglory figures to be a double-digit long shot in the Kentucky Derby, he's won't be one of those no-hope horses filling out the field. He's got that impressive speed figure and he's got a sharp trainer behind him. Since 1976, Roussel has won 703 races with a winning rate of 23 percent.
Yet, Recapturetheglory is no Risen Star, one of the best horses of his era and a horse who should be in the Hall of Fame. That's fine with Roussel. He's just glad to have another shot at winning the Kentucky Derby, the prize that eluded him 20 years ago.
"I went there with the best horse in America," he said. "I thought I had the best horse in America, bar none, and got whipped. So if I can get beat with a champion at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, maybe I can win it without a champion."
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at email@example.com.