11/21/2006 1:00AM

A tradition comes home


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It is abundantly clear that dreams die hard in New Orleans, where more than 1,500 people lost their lives and half the city was flooded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the antiquated levee system holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain in late August 2005.

For the past year, staggering forward in fits and starts, the traumatized people of New Orleans have been drying up and digging out, dealing with insurance adjusters and faceless bureaucracies while trying hard to imagine what their city could ever become again.

Those of us who have witnessed the struggle from afar, relying on friends on the scene and Anderson Cooper on CNN, have clung to the handful of hopeful tales of individual initiative and selfless volunteerism. In the end, it appears as if the city will rise from the mud, one neighborhood at a time. Still, it is always encouraging whenever government funds end up in the proper hands, or when a major corporation decides that investment in New Orleans is the right thing to do.

Among the economic casualties of the disaster was Thoroughbred racing at the Fair Grounds, one of the sport's most important winter homes and a newly purchased part of the Churchill Downs Inc. family of racetracks in October 2004.

CDI officials could not be blamed for thinking that their handsome New Orleans acquisition was disaster proof. After all, back in 1993, the Fair Grounds grandstand burned to the ground and was rebuilt, opening its new facility in 1997.

But then came Katrina, with its 145 mph winds ripping pieces off the grandstand roof, followed by the overflowing waters from the broken levees that flooded the main track, the turf course, the infield, and the stables. Just like that, nearly 200 years of New Orleans racing history was submerged in a fetid soup of salt water and sewage, with a future clouded in doubt.

Enough of the setup, though. Let's cut to the chase. After CDI spent $16 million to clean up the Fair Grounds - grandstand, stables, and tracks - the Gentilly Boulevard landmark is ready for one of its traditional Thanksgiving Day openings on Thursday.

Call it a miracle and no one will argue, because nothing comes close in terms of how bad it was and how far it had to come. This is a story of resurrection on a par with Barbaro's back leg, and if racing fans can't be there in person, they had better be there in spirit.

Bob Roesler, former sports editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and a member of the writers' wing of the football Hall of Fame, will spend Thursday thinking of little else. For Roesler and his wife, Cloe, each Thanksgiving had come brightly wrapped in the festivities of opening day at the races.

Until last year. Last year, the Roeslers became two of the displaced thousands who lost their homes in the flood.

"Katrina blew us clear to Oregon," Roesler said this week from his family's temporary apartment in Eugene, where their daughter teaches at the University of Oregon.

"We were three-quarters of a mile from the breach," Roesler said of his one-level home in the Lakeview district, hard by the notorious 17th Street canal. "We had ten and a half feet of water and lost everything."

Everything in Roesler's world included a panorama of personal photographs documenting Louisiana sports history and a rich library that contained, among other things, the research material on a book he was writing about World War II submarine warfare.

"The submarine book? Down the tubes," Roesler said.

As a chronicler of racing in New Orleans, Roesler has few peers. But after 45 years on the sports scene - as reporter, columnist and sports editor - it's hard not to collect a few juicy stories, like the tale of Grand Wizard, winner of the opening-day Thanksgiving Day Handicap in 1960.

As Roesler tells it in "Fair Grounds: Big Shots & Long Shots," Grand Wizard celebrated his victory by going AWOL that Thanksgiving night, strolling through his open stall door and heading down Gentilly Boulevard in the general direction of the French Quarter.

According to Roesler, official police reports credit a pair of teenage boys with snagging Grand Wizard in traffic somewhere around Claiborne Avenue and Laffitte Street and taking him to the nearest police station, where he was turned over to officer Stella Gorman.

Any doubts that opening day at the Fair Grounds was anything less than an important civic event - even 46 years ago - can be dispelled by Officer Gorman's reaction when she took one look at the name on the horse's halter and immediately called her boss at home.

"Captain," she said, "this is Stella Gorman. We have Grand Wizard down at the First District."

At 78, Roesler can't imagine living anywhere but New Orleans for long, even though Eugene has treated him well.

"I was back down there four weeks ago," Roesler said. "We stayed in downtown New Orleans, and I could see it changing just in the week I was there. It's going to take a hell of a lot more work. But there are a few things that will really help. One of them is the return of the Saints and the opening of the Superdome. And the other is the racetrack. The racetrack is New Orleans."