3 inducted into Fair Grounds Hall

NEW ORLEANS — Legendary Fair Grounds Race Course jockey E.J. Perrodin once told his wife, Lisa, how much the New Orleans track meant to him. He explained how God gave ducks the instinct to fly south for the winter, much as Perrodin did every winter when he ventured to the Fair Grounds.

“He told me, ‘I’m just like the ducks,’ ” Lisa Perrodin said during the annual Fair Grounds Hall of Fame induction dinner Monday. “He said, ‘I’m just following them south.’ ”

E.J. Perrodin was one of a trio of track legends who were inducted Monday during the event in the Fair Grounds’ Black Gold Room, which included a reception and a roughly 25-minute induction ceremony in front of a standing-room-only crowd of about 140 attendees and course officials, including several previous Hall of Fame inductees.

Also welcomed into the course’s Hall of Fame were mount Star Guitar, the course’s all-time, Louisiana-bred leader in earnings; and Ray Salmen, a legendary owner who was the second inductee selected by the Fair Grounds’ new voting procedure aimed at recognizing overlooked candidates from the past.

The inductees were selected by a 12-person committee that includes Fair Grounds staffers, local and national journalists, and other experts.

Now a legend at age 8, Star Guitar is perhaps the most well-known of the three inductees, at least to recent Fair Grounds followers.

The all-time, Louisiana-bred earnings leader won the Louisiana Champions Day a record five times for Brittlyn Stable’s Maurice and Evelyn Benoit. Trained by 2012 Fair Grounds Hall of Fame inductee Al Stall Jr., Star Guitar picked up 22 of his 24 Fair Grounds wins in stakes races.

“(The ceremony) just makes you appreciate what a special place this race track is,” Stall said. “We’re all here for the same reason: We love a horse. We were lucky enough to be given a great horse. There are no superlatives to describe how good Star Guitar was.”

Evelyn Benoit accepted her mount’s Hall of Fame induction.

“(Guitar) was the wish on every candle on every birthday cake since I was a kid,” she said. “He was a lifelong dream come true. He is an outstanding athlete with a great big heart.”

Evelyn recounted how she posted pictures of Star Guitar winning a big stakes in her husband’s hospital room after Maurice was in a coma after a horrific car accident.

“I wanted Star to be the first thing he saw when he woke up,” Evelyn said as several members of the audience teared up.

Rayne native Perrodin won more than 3,000 races in his career, including more than 200 stakes contests, 56 of which came at the Fair Grounds.

His mounts earned $41 million during his 37-year career, and in 1979, Perrodin won six races on a single day’s card. The beloved jockey — who was known mostly by his nickname, Tee-Joe — died last year of cancer at 55.

“You couldn’t find a better person to be around,” Fair Grounds jockey Kerwin “Boo Boo” Clark said of the compatriot he knew for 35 years. “He was never one to toot his own horn. He let his racing speak for itself. He was a great guy who was the same guy off the track as he was on the track. He loved the Fair Grounds, and he loved to ride here.”

Lisa Perrodin echoed Clark’s sentiments.

“I don’t think anyone in this room realizes how special the Fair Grounds was to him,” said Lisa, who met her husband at the Fair Grounds. “No matter where we’ve lived, this was where his heart called home.”

The night’s other honoree was Salmen, an owner who remained active until his death in 1977 at 59. Salmen owned several Fair Grounds favorites such as Pago Hop, Iron Gray and his most successful horse, A Letter to Harry, who was inducted into the Fair Grounds Hall in 1992. Salmen also served on the Fair Grounds board of directors for nine years.

Accepting the honor for Salmen was his daughter, Sandra Salmen, who is a well-known figure in the track’s 141-year history and now serves as part of the facility’s horsemen’s relations.

“He not only loved racing but everyone else in racing,” she said. “He really embraced the whole entity of racing, which, to me, makes his induction into the Fair Grounds Hall of Fame so special.

“New Orleans was his home,” she said. “It was his favorite place to win races, and he was supported by so many local people. From the hop walkers to the grooms, they all cheered him on.”

Monday’s dinner brought the Hall of Fame’s total roster to 127 members, including 21 who were also inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame.

The track’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony was recently started up again after a lengthy hiatus.

Proceeds from the event will help fund the facility’s continuing English classes for its backstretch workers, a program sponsored by St. Anna’s Episcopal Church, the Fair Grounds Chaplaincy and the Neighborhood Story Project. Daniel Orantes, a backstretch worker who took the program’s classes and now volunteers for it, said the effort represents immigrants’ hope for a better life in America.

“I want my fellow workers to have the same chance I had to learn English and feel at home in this country,” Orantes said.

The program is appreciated by many staffers at the race course, including Sandra Salmen, who said her father would be proud of the effort.