Bob Fortus Passes at 69 in Louisiana
Posted July 18, 2019
Bob Fortus, an unassuming, professional journalist and consummate expert on the sport of Thoroughbred racing, died on July 16 in Baton Rouge, La. at age 69. He was a longtime member of National Turf Writers and Broadcasters.
Fortus, a St. Louis native who earned a Ph.D. in statistics from the University of Michigan, was also an athlete. As an underclassman studying math in Ann Arbor, he lettered in track as a distance runner for the Wolverines.
After stints teaching statistics to college students, Fortus left Tulane University before joining the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1980. He wrote about horse racing and other sports for the next 32 years until the paper downsized. Along the way, Fortus was recognized for his work by editors, readers and peers.
Fortus won the inaugural Joe Hirsch Memorial Writing Contest, presented by the New York Racing Association, for his wrap of the 2009 Belmont Stakes. In the Times-Picayune story, Fortus recounted Calvin Borel missing out on a personal Triple Crown after winning the Kentucky Derby on Mine That Bird and the Preakness Stakes aboard Rachel Alexandra. Borel was reunited with Mine That Bird in the Belmont, only to finish third to Summer Bird.
Fortus was named to the Fair Grounds Press Box Hall of Fame in 2011, and in 2013 he won the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters’ Walter Haight Award, which honors career excellence in turf writing. The award is named after the Washington Post racing columnist who died in 1968.
Among the turf writing and broadcasting community, Fortus' friendship with Texas turf journalist and former NTWAB president Gary West became legendary. At many events, whether a Triple Crown race or Breeders' Cup or a big race in between, the pair could be seen roaming the back side, the front side, and, on occasion, hanging out in the evening where horse racing enthusiasts gathered to share a libation, an opinion and a story or two.
“I don’t think we can overstate his love for horse racing,” West told the Times-Picayune. “He had a real passion for racing and for horses. I think he realized how unselfish the horses are and how pure the sport is. In my view, he saw clearly what horses are doing when they race. They’re defining themselves. Even the lowliest horse out there was making an effort. He was defining himself.
“I think that belief defined Bob because the world is so full of ambiguity and fraud, and horses are so contrary to that," added West, who wrote for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Dallas Morning News and ESPN. "The horses are going to go out there and race, regardless of what’s going on. They love to race. They’ve been bred since the late 17th century to do nothing but race, and Bob appreciated that.”
Fortus wasn't just interested in the equine side of the sport. On Sept. 7, 2015, "Ride to Win: An Inside Look at the Jockey's Craft" was published by JockeyTalk360. Written by Fortus and West, the book revealed the rider’s perspective and covered angles from exercise riding and workouts to weight management to stable relations to mapping out ways to win and keeping trainers happy. Over 50 jockeys were interviewed for the book.
The book was among the finalists for the 10th annual Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award presented by Castleton Lyons, the farm near Lexington, Ky. purchased by the late Dr. Ryan in 2001. Ryan founded the award in 2006 as a tribute to his twin passions of horse racing and literature.
“There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye,” Fortus said. “Our goal was to shed light on everything jockeys do to try to reach the winner’s circle – a complex, fascinating process. These are amazing athletes.”
Severely injured when struck by a car in March near home and his beloved Fair Grounds, Fortus was in a hospital setting for the remainder of his life before dying at the Capitol House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Baton Rouge on Tuesday. According to the Times-Picayune, police said Fortus was hit when he was crossing North Lopez Street at Grand Route St. John. Police said they were unable to do a full investigation, fault for the injury was not assigned, and the driver of the car was not publicly disclosed.
Les East, who in 2013 was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists, worked with Fortus at the Times-Picayune. In a Wednesday column at crescentcitysports.com, he wrote that Bob consciously avoided cliches in his work.
"Bob was often bemused by the silliness that broadcasters would verbalize," East wrote about an evening back in the day. "One time when he was on the copy desk and a game was being broadcast on the TV in the sports department, he suggested facetiously that broadcasts should feature a 'momentum meter' that would keep the viewer updated on the constant 'shifts in momentum' that broadcasters insisted on using each time a significant play transpired."
Fortus knew what he liked, and he liked Risen Star a lot. In a 2011 interview with Blood-Horse, Fortus said Risen Star -- the winner of the 1988 Louisiana Derby, Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes owned by Louie Roussel III and Ronnie Lamarque -- was his favorite horse of all time.
Bob was Old School and didn't have a Twitter page, but we're sure he wouldn't mind that his personality, professionalism and passion were reflected in numerous tweets following the announcement of his passing.
Gone too soon. Bob lived for horse racing. He will be greatly missed.
--Tim Wilkin (@tjwilkin)
Terribly sad. Bob was a great man who greeted everyone with a smile and embodied New Orleans like no other.
--Zoe Cadman (@zoecadman)
Very sad news, Bob was a smart, kind man and dedicated racing fan. RIP
--Caton Bredar (@CBredar)
Bob Fortus once leaned over his Fair Grounds pressbox perch & starting counting. "1-2-3-4-5." I asked him, "What are you counting, Bob?"
"The number of convicted felons in the winner's circle," he said. "Isn't that nice?"
Bob was a gift to horse racing. May he rest in peace.
--Ray Paulick (@raypaulick)
Not just a longtime member. Bob was honored by his peers with the 2013 Walter Haight Award for career excellence in Thoroughbred racing journalism. No one ever deserved it more. Okay, maybe Red Smith.
--Jay Hovdey (@JayHovdey)
Very sad news. Bob Fortus was a sweet, friendly man, always good company. Kind to me when he was in the major leagues and I was not. He loved racing and wrote about it beautifully.
--Tim Layden (@ByTimLayden)
Survivors include his longtime companion, Cherish Van Mullem, JD, LL.M., a greater New Orleans area attorney specializing in tax law.
Unassuming to the end, Fortus did not want a funeral or memorial service. According to West, there will be a gathering of friends at a time to be decided.
By Dick Downey for NTWAB