11/17/2005 12:00AM

When bad luck turns worse


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Ronnie Virgets can be forgiven, just this once, if he feels the weight of some great, dark juju curse bearing down upon his everlasting soul, firing warning shots across his weathered bow and otherwise playing havoc with a life not intended to hurt anybody.

It was bad enough getting flooded out of his New Orleans home when the waters of Lake Pontchartrain broke through the levee of the 17th Street Canal and swamped his beloved neighborhood, just east of the sprawling City Park.

Barely two months later, displaced to new digs, Virgets found himself checking into East Jefferson General Hospital, the victim of a gall bladder gone rotten, and submitting to a surgery that can't be called anything less than major, even though he was told doctors do it all the time.

But now, adding insult to everlasting injury, Virgets and his fellow New Orleanians must face a Thanksgiving Day next week without the comforting sight and sounds of Thoroughbred racing returning to town at Fair Grounds.

"I can't even imagine it," Virgets said. "Opening day was like the changing of the seasons."

Virgets is every bit as synonymous with New Orleans racing as Cracker Walker, Pan Zareta, and "Black Cat" Allen LaCombe. From his days at Loyola U., Virgets has chronicled the sporting and cultural scene of his native New Orleans with uncommon grace and wit. He has written for just about every publication around, most notably for Gambit Weekly, and lent his talents to any number of television and radio features dipping into the Big Easy. He has even been the face and voice of Fair Grounds in a popular ad campaign.

It is of small consolation to Virgets and his fellow travelers that Louisiana Downs, up there high and dry in Shreveport, has offered to host a 37-day meeting under the Fair Grounds banner, beginning on Saturday. Such a stopgap gesture is welcome news to Louisiana's horsemen, but the hometown crowd is crushed, feeling every bit the same as when the Saints of the NFL were relocated to Baton Rouge, or when the home games of Tulane's Green Wave were sent washing up on such distant shores as Ruston, Monroe, and Lafayette.

Virgets, reached in his hospital bed Thursday morning, can't do a damned thing about it.

"They took out my gall bladder late last night," he said. "So I'm just laying here, deciding how miserable I'm going to be."

Don't be fooled. Virgets might play the role of the world-weary curmudgeon, bound and determined to burst every gas-filled bubble in sight, but he is at the heart of his New Orleans heart a true romantic. Who else would spend such creative energy on a catalog of small human dramas and appreciations, as he did in his Gambit column of Sept. 14, 2004, under the headline "Blessed Are These":

"Bless the house where I live," he wrote, "that keeps me warm and dry (or cool and dry), and when I am so, I lay and listen for the night-breath of the house, the creaking and cracking of the walls and floors and ceilings in the dark, the inhalations and the exhalations as we grow old together."

Virgets is 63 and survived Katrina. His house did not. When the hurricane passed, and the leaking waters of Lake Pontchartrain began to rise around his two-story on Marshal Foch Street, Virgets decided to hang tough, a die-hard local to the end.

"I was staying at the time with my girlfriend, right around the corner," Virgets said. "But I decided to go back to my house on the outside chance it got bad, and I would need that second story. I was already looking at water higher than I've ever seen - over your head if you were walking on the sidewalk. I remember thinking, as the rescue boat was pulling away on that Monday, that by Saturday this water will be down. It just shows you the epic scale was just beyond me and a lot of other people."

The rescue boats came back, eventually, and Virgets swam from his rooftop for his life, leaving behind a house full of memories.

"Your worldly possessions look surrealistically picturesque as they float by, one last appraisal before they are soaked and sad and shoveled out of your life forever," Virgets wrote in his first post-Katrina column.

Among the meaningful things left behind were a veritable library of clippings and tapes - the tangible record of Virgets as consummate journalist - as well as the two bronze Eclipse Awards he won for newspaper writing (1989) and local TV (1994).

"When I was able to go back, the house was a goner - either that or an ultra-modern painting," Virgets said. "Somehow, I dug the two Eclipses out of the mud. The horse part was very salvageable. It's just that the wooden bases are all warped and busted."

They can be fixed, and hopefully so can Virgets.

"There will be a great deal of healing due when all this is over," he wrote as November dawned. "I hope to be around for some of it."

Get well, Ronnie V. Get well and write soon.