Winner's circle suits Lewises

Owners: Charismatic is merely the latest success story for Robert and Beverly Lewis, who have owned two of the past three Kentucky Derby winners

124th Preakness

May 13, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

The horses were coming off the trucks near the Pimlico stakes barn yesterday morning, and Robert and Beverly Lewis were lined up among a crowd waiting to see their horse, Charismatic, the Kentucky Derby winner.

A beautiful chestnut was led by, and Robert Lewis leaned forward, looking at him.

"Is that Charismatic?" he was asked.

Silence. And then, "I don't know. I don't think he's big enough."

The Lewises do have 90 racehorses spread around the country, and until his surprising Derby victory two weeks go, Charismatic wasn't one they necessarily would recognize.

Back at the barn, Beverly Lewis was saying it's hard to tell these beautiful beasts apart if you can't see their markings.

Another big chestnut came around the corner.

"That's him," said Robert.

"You can tell by the large blaze on his face," said Beverly.

There's another way you can tell one of the Lewises' horses. They often are the ones standing in the winner's circle after a big race.

Some people are in the racing business for 50 years and never have a stakes winner, let alone a horse that wins a Kentucky Derby or Preakness. The Lewises, in just their ninth year, have had extraordinary luck.

The first horse they ever sent to a racetrack, Sunshine Machine, won. The first horse they ever sent to a stakes race, Debonair, won.

Since then, they've never looked back.

The couple lives in Newport Beach, Calif., and has been in the racing business since 1990, but even before buying their first horse, they were racing people.

Robert's parents took him to the grand opening of Santa Anita in 1934, when he was a boy. And Robert took Beverly to the races at Portland Meadows when they were students at the University of Oregon.

When they got married, they spent their three-day honeymoon going to races at three tracks.

"We love the horses, but it is a business," said Robert, who celebrated his 75th birthday yesterday. "The jockey, the trainer, the owners simply have the thrill of being associated with the horse.

"Let me tell you, it's a marvelous experience, but we try to be realistic about it. You have to be. When you're dealing with the almighty dollar, it's the bottom line that matters."

In 1995, their horse, Timber Country, won the Preakness. The same year, Serena's Song won the Black-Eyed Susan. And in 1997, Silver Charm won the Derby and Preakness.

This year, they had two Derby hopefuls: Exploit, for seven weeks the No. 1 Derby contender with six straight wins, who developed a chip in his knee and was retired; and Straightman, lightly raced, who didn't pan out.

But Charismatic, a horse who ran in a claiming race in February before hitting his stride in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland in April, came through in the Derby.

"It's just unbelievable," the Lewises said in tandem. "Unbelievable."

But D. Wayne Lukas, who has trained numerous horses for the Lewises, said their good fortune has been built on solid ground.

"All owners are not alike, and there are very few Lewises in racing," Lukas said. "They accept the ups and downs. They win graciously. And they represent me and [trainer Bob] Baffert so well. I've had owners for whom I've had to write follow-up letters [of apology] to the maitre d' and the parking attendant.

"The Lewises are appreciative, and they've stepped up to the plate. They go buy good horses. They've spent $1 million, $1.2 million, $1.4 million on a lot of occasions. Robert Lewis has always been a [gutsy] guy."

Robert Lewis began as a beer salesman and built his beer distributorship, Foothill Beverage Co., into a multimillion-dollar business. His oldest son, Jeff, now runs the day-to-day operations in Pomona, Calif., and Robert remains chairman.

He said he admires his horses and sometimes, even now, believes Silver Charm is so smart that one day when he and Beverly stop by his stall to give him a carrot, "He is going to open his mouth and talk to us."

It's obvious, watching the Lewises, that they enjoy racing. And as they watched Charismatic getting bathed yesterday, they were delighted with what they saw.

"He just looks the picture!" said Robert, patting his wife's hand on his sleeve. "But I hope Wayne doesn't show him off too much. It'll spoil the odds."

Then again, if you believe in signs, consider this:

The night before the Derby two years ago, Robert Lewis lost a crown while out to dinner with his family.

"It rolled under the table, and we were all on the floor looking for it," Beverly said. "Then, before this Derby, the same thing happened. He lost another one and had to have it fixed."

And Tuesday morning, the Lewises got a call from Lukas. This time, the trainer had lost a crown.

"Maybe it's a good omen," Lukas said. "We're going for a Triple Crown."

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