For Burrells, racehorses are hits, too


May 06, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Lewis Burrell Sr. is living the railbird's fantasy. He wakes up one day and suddenly, magically, has so much money that the details just don't matter anymore. He doesn't have to get down on his knees and beg for an exacta. He doesn't have to shout himself hoarse as another investment wobbles down the stretch. He can buy the damn horses now. Buy 'em, bubba!

Five months ago, Burrell and his son, Louis Jr., took some of their family's sudden fortune, which is very sudden and very large, and bought some horses. Not just claimers, either. Not just fourth-race-on-Tuesday-at-Pimlico nags. "We're a flair family," Burrell, 51, said last week by his barn at Churchill Downs, standing in front of a white limo the length of Delaware. "We don't do things in a small way."

No. And they are everywhere, suddenly, big and everywhere in this game. They won the Kentucky Oaks last week with Lite Light, perhaps the country's best 3-year-old filly. They have a colt, Media Plan, being considered for the Preakness. They have seven 2-year-olds. They have two trainers, one of them Wayne Lukas. They bought their first horse just five months ago, but already they are big, Big, BIG.

The railbird's fantasy: jumping over the rail and running to the winner's circle. Burrell dreamed about it as he played the horses for 30 years, winning some, losing more than some, the gamble always a thrill. Then he awoke one day last year and the youngest of his seven kids was the hottest rap singer in the country, and suddenly there was money everywhere, and suddenly there was more to racing than just the play.

Yes. Jumping over the rail and running to the winner's circle. Ducking into the barn to confer with Lukas. Going to the yearling sales. Talking about taking your horses to the Preakness, the Belmont. "All thanks to Stanley," Burrell said, smiling. "He likes to be called 'Hammer' now, but I still call him Stanley. I can do that. I'm his dad."

If you hadn't guessed by now, the youngest of Burrell's kids, Stanley, is known in the papers as M.C. Hammer. The family wasn't hurting before Stanley made it big; their father has earned a reasonable wage for years managing a legal casino in California, providing a healthy, middle-class home. But things are different now, different in that only-in-America way. "Everywhere I go," Burrell said, pointing to the limo, "I ride in a car that big."

He is a short man with a big, round belly -- "I used to be a good dancer, but that was 150 pounds ago" -- and a pleasant, wise manner. He moved to Oakland from a little town in Louisiana when he was 16, to live with his mother ("my grandmother raised me") and started playing the horses a few years later at old Tanforan Park in the Bay area.

"I was managing an apartment building in West Oakland and my barber lived around the corner, and every time I went for a cut we'd play the daily double," he said. "He'd pick one and I'd pick one. But we sent the money out to the track with a guy we didn't trust. So I started taking the money out to the track myself, and each time I stayed a little bit longer."

He also started having kids and didn't stop until he had four boys and three girls. The oldest went to high school with Rickey Henderson. "Rickey was over at our house all the time," he said. "They used to play cards. Not for money, of course. And we still see Rickey all the time. Most of my children's friends are athletes and entertainers."

Louis Jr. was the Oakland Athletics' first batboy 20 years ago. Stanley also worked for the A's; he started out as a batboy, but owner Charlie Finley made him a vice president when he was 13. "Everybody makes a lot out of that now," Burrell said, "but I think Finley was just thumbing his nose at baseball, showing them that, you know, even a child could run a team."

Stanley was a talented baseball player in high school, but soon turned to rap music. Stanley's father grew up listening to rhythm-and-blues -- "B.B. King, the Drifters, the Dells" -- but was impressed with the new direction his son was taking.

"He'd come by the house and take me out for a drive and play me his songs, letting me know what he was up to," Burrell said. "I taught my kids never to be afraid to challenge things. My friends all said, 'Aw, if you've heard one rapper, you've heard them all.' I always told them Stanley was different."

He was, and soon the money was cascading in and life was limos and private planes. It was on such a flight last December that Burrell mentioned to Louis Jr. that they should do something about their mutual love for racing. They bought a couple of claimers first, "just to see what owning was all about." One of their first purchases won $50,000 and three races, and they were hooked. Now they own 15 horses.

Stanley has shown only a small interest in racing so far, but Burrell expects that to change. "He's just busy right now," he said. "He came out with us one day to Golden Gate Fields and he saw that this isn't just a toy for us, that we're approaching this the same way we approached the music business: very seriously."

Indeed. They have the look of a racing family that is going to be around for good. With seven 2-year-olds in their stable and Wayne Lukas as a trainer, their chances of making the Kentucky Derby are better than many. "It's what every horseplayer dreams about, getting a horse and making the Derby," Burrell said. How very proper.

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