Two hours before the first race on a Thanksgiving Day at the Fair Grounds, when guys are elbowing each other over their draft beers and assiduously studying the lines in their racing forms at Liuzza’s Bar, you’re certain to hear names like Risen Star and Eddie Delahoussaye. And you’re going to hear about “times in the quarter” and “how this horse runs on a muddy track.”
That’s a tipoff: You know these guys are more than just casual bettors.
But if the track talk starts and you don’t hear the name “Allen “Black Cat” Lacombe,” you know these guys must be from Jersey.
Any real New Orleanian would tell you that the upcoming season will mark the 25th anniversary of the death of the track’s — and the city’s — most famous bon vivant and raconteur. Period.
“The Cat,” as he was called by the legions of people (and not just horse racing fans) who knew and loved him, was the quintessential Damon Runyon character.
Who else throws a party for his draft board?
Who else picks nine winners on one racing card, then fails to bet on any of them because “I got an inside tip”?
Who else promotes camel races in Iran?
Or as the late sportscaster Buddy Diliberto told writer Angus Lind once, “I thought I had seen it all until he gave me a horse to bet on in a harness race … and then a wheel came off.”
Black Cat’s luck was notoriously bad.
Allen Lacombe was not born in the colorful Irish Channel or the Lower Ninth Ward, but in Echo, Louisiana, a tiny burg outside Alexandria.
However, it didn’t take him long to gravitate to the Channel and hustle a job “Counting bricks in a sidewalk. Man, you talk about a meatball job!”
And if, as the old saying goes, “A man is known by the company he keeps and the places he frequents,” it didn’t take an Einstein to figure where Lacombe — a dead ringer for Lou Costello of the old Abbot and Costello comedy team — hung out and where he was headed.
That hangout was the intersection of Poydras Street and St. Charles Avenue, long before the Louisiana Superdome was built.
It was a time when that corner was the home of Curley Gagliano’s bar and gymnasium (not to mention backroom betting parlor) and was the heart of skid row.
It was also the hangout for guys like The Cat, Leapin’ Lou Messina, Place ‘n’ Show Joe, Green Suit Harry, Alimony Tony and Papa Lew Raymond, a rotund character who gave the grimy strip outside Curley’s the name “Raymond’s Beach.”
And of course, when great and idle minds like these gather, it isn’t long before one or more cockeyed schemes is hatched. Like, “Hey, let’s run The Cat for governor!”
And so it happened in 1959: With Black Cat Lacombe as the candidate, Leapin’ Lou as treasurer and campaign manager, Curley’s on Poydras Street sprang up right from Raymond’s Beach as “Lacombe for Governor Campaign Headquarters.”
A legend in Louisiana politics was hatched.
“Hell, Cuz, when Curley broke down and offered his jernt as headquarters and a place for the victory celebration, I figured fate is smilin’ down on me,” the Cat said. “I took off campaigning around the state.”
No other candidate in American political history has campaigned the way Allen “The Black Cat” Lacombe campaigned before or since that run for the governor’s mansion..
“I zeroed in on Jimmy Noe (who served as governor for a little over three months in 1936). I got his schedule on the campaign trail and I’d show up about half an hour before he did. I’d tell the crowd, ‘You know, ole Uncle Allen ain’t got a shot in this race … but I want you to vote for the next governor of Louisiana, Mr. Jimmy Noe.’
“By the time Jimmy walked in I had the crowd all lined up for him. Then I’d tell him ‘Governor, I’d like to stay in this race and campaign for you, but I’m sufferin’ from the shorts.
“Well, Jimmy would slip a hundred dollar bill into my hand, then I’d haul ass outta there and head for the next stop on his campaign. I finished seventh in an 11-horse race and I wound up making 49 bucks. Some of them other guys spent jillions and they finished way behind me.”
With his short-lived political career behind him, it wasn’t long before the Cat wound up as publicist for the Fair Grounds and for Messina’s boxing promotions and just about any other hustle that came along.
In the early days of the Louisiana Superdome, when that body’s ruling commission was taking bids for a security company contract, “Funds Very Limited” was formed by The Cat, Messina, Clothier Joe Gemelli and sports writer Peter “Champ” Clark.
Spokespersons for business conglomerates from around the country took the podium and tossed around monetary figures in the millions.
When Messina shuffled up to the podium, he mumbled something about “Between the Cat and me, we got a couple of unemployment checks, although Joe and Champ have a few bucks. We know we ain’t got a chance to land this contract, but I can put you in touch with three men who can get the job done and save you a ton of money.”
“Who is that, Mr. Messina?,” came a reply from one of the search committee members.
Without a second’s hesitation, Messina shot back, “The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”
The members of Funds Very Limited knew it was time to leave.
Then there was the benefit football game the Cat promoted in the Irish Channel that ended in a brawl on the second floor of Baggot’s bar on Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street with a post-game pot of red beans and rice flying through the window fan and showering down on folks waiting for the Magazine Street bus.
Then there was the time …
Well, if you spend enough time at the Fair Grounds, you’ll hear all about it. Whatever it is, chances are good that Allen “The Black Cat” Lacombe was behind it.
You can bet on it.