04/29/2008 12:00AM

Remodeled odd couple resurfaces


WASHINGTON, D.C. - As Louie Roussel III and Ronnie Lamarque return to Churchill Downs this week, many people will remember them from 1988 as one of the oddest trainer-owner combinations ever involved in the Kentucky Derby.

In contrast to most trainers, Roussel was insecure, constantly racked by self-doubt. He once told interviewers, "What I know about training you could put under a gnat's armpit."

Lamarque was an effusive, glad-handing, hard-partying car dealer who was the cheerleader bucking up Roussel's confidence.

Although the two men from New Orleans sometimes sounded like a vaudeville act, they wound up achieving results that conventional horsemen would envy. They won the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes, and the 3-year-old championship with their colt Risen Star, and with any luck they would have won the Derby, too.

Saturday, they will try again to win America's most famous race with Recapturetheglory, who scored a four-length victory in the Illinois Derby earlier this month. But it won't be the same Roussel and Lamarque. The passage of 20 years has changed them both.

Roussel has always been an intriguing and contradictory character. Despite his frequent appearance of flakiness, he is solidly entrenched in New Orleans's power structure. His father, Louis Jr., made a fortune in oil and banking; Louie III, expected to follow in these footsteps, went to law school and became a banker. But horses were his real passion, and he began to train Thoroughbreds in the morning before going to work at a bank or a law office. He compiled solid statistics as a trainer at Fair Grounds, though admittedly he had a home-course advantage; for a time his family owned the track. Nevertheless, he was a capable horseman and there was no good reason for his self-deprecation while he was managing Risen Star.

Roussel still practices law, but his health seriously disrupted his work at the racetrack. After undergoing three surgeries on his back and neck, he was forced in 2004 to give up training and put his horses in the care of an assistant. It was not until this winter that he felt well enough to return to Fair Grounds and care for a three-horse stable that included Recapturetheglory.

Lamarque, a self-made man who became wealthy in the automobile business, was a novice in the racing game during Risen Star's memorable season. He relished the experience and recalled, "I went to every party. I went to every bar. I danced all night."

At bars and restaurants he frequently burst into song, crooning a paean to Risen Star to the tune of "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans." He fulfilled his ultimate fantasy when he got to sing it on national television after Risen Star won the Preakness.

Lamarque seemed like such a happy-go-lucky character that people who had met him in 1988 could scarcely believe the sordid headlines involving him five years later. In the midst of a nasty divorce, his estranged wife and two of her relatives had plotted to murder Lamarque. Their scheme was foiled when they tried to hire a hitman who was a police informant.

Understandably, Lamarque was shaken by the experience, though he is now happily remarried and a changed person.

"Twenty years have mellowed me," he said. "I'm really composed."

Over the two decades, however, one constant in the men's lives has been their friendship and their partnership in the horse business. "We've bonded like brothers," Lamarque said.

The differences between them have narrowed. "When we had Risen Star," Lamarque said, "Louie was insecure; I was always a risk-taker. But Louie is different now. He's stronger and stronger. He's become a risk-taker."

Lamarque's role in their relationship has changed as well. Roussel said: "He's not a rookie owner anymore. He's not just a cheerleader. In 20 years he's learned a lot. He's an integral part of our partnership."

The two men are both haunted by Risen Star's loss in the Derby after a disastrously wide trip, knowing that he deserved to win the Triple Crown. Both hunger to win the Derby and make up for that disappointment. They had a chance when their colt Kandaly finished fourth in 1991. (Lamarque had a song ready for national television but never got a chance to deliver it.)

But they have had a long wait to return to Churchill Downs.

Even while his back problems kept him from training, Roussel continued to own a few horses. In 2007 he attended an auction of 2-year-olds and liked the looks of a son of the stallion Cherokee Run. He had Lamarque on his cellphone as the bidding progressed, with his partner exhorting him, "Go more! Go more!" They bought Recapturetheglory for $215,000.

By the end of March, the colt had won only a maiden race in five career starts. In his only start as a 3-year-old, he had lost a first-level allowance race at Fair Grounds. Yet Roussel maintained enough confidence in Recapturetheglory that on March 29 - the deadline for nominations to the Triple Crown - he stood in line at the post office to mail the check and entry form that would make his colt eligible for the series. Roussel also had the confidence to enter him - despite the animal's meager accomplishments - in the $500,000 Illinois Derby.

Recapturetheglory led all the way to win, running fast enough to suggest that he might be competitive with the top colts of his generation. Now he will have the ultimate opportunity to live up to his name.

(c) 2008, The Washington Post