Craig Lewis' horse Clubhouse Ride will go for victory in the last Gold… (Benoit Photo / Associated…)
All things considered, Craig Lewis should be spending his days alongside a jury box, not a racing rail. He should be doing battle with Mark Geragos, not Bob Baffert.
Lewis is much happier in boots and jeans than coat and tie. As a student at Cal, he did fine with the books, but never stopped loving the barns.
And so, on Saturday, when they go to the post for the 74th, and last, Hollywood Gold Cup at Betfair Hollywood Park, the veteran trainer who was once called "College Boy" by his venerable peer, Warren Stute, will be right where he always wanted to be. In the midst of a big horse race.
"I always wanted to do this," says Lewis, 66. "It never changed."
He is one of three sons of teachers from Long Beach. Education was a big deal, and all three brothers — Larry, Craig and Todd — graduated from Berkeley. Todd made a career in real estate. Larry and Craig went to law school.
"I knew the first year of law school, I didn't want to be a lawyer," Craig says. "But I also knew I wanted to finish [the three years]. I did my best, but I remember showing up in the library, sitting down next to Larry and reading the Racing Form while he studied."
Craig never took the law board. He got his law degree and headed for his happiness.
"I was at Santa Anita the day after I graduated," Craig says.
Larry became a successful corporate lawyer, had the great horse Larry The Legend named for him, and likes to tell people, when asked about the divergent paths he and Craig took after law school, "My brother took the high road and I took the low road."
Craig Lewis, while realistic, holds out hope that his horse, Clubhouse Ride, can keep the Gold Cup's overwhelming favorite, Baffert's Game On Dude, from repeating.
In the horses' last three meetings, all this year, Game On Dude has won and Clubhouse Ride has been second. That includes the San Antonio and Santa Anita Handicap and the Charles Town (W.Va.) Classic in April, a $1.5-million race.
Is the fourth time the charm?
If Game On Dude, age 6, wins Saturday, he will surpass $5 million in winnings. Clubhouse Ride, 5, whose initial purchase price was $22,000, will surpass $1 million with a third or better. Game On Dude will carry 127 pounds, most ever for him, and Clubhouse Ride will carry 119.
"Probably doesn't matter," Lewis says. "We got 10 pounds in the Big 'Cap and he still won."
Lewis says the race will be interesting because there is no pace in the field. Game On Dude, with veteran Mike Smith on board, will set it because there is nobody else.
"We'll have to hope we are on our A game and he's not," Lewis says. "He has to come back to the rest of us.
"That's the kind of moment a trainer dreams of."
Lewis has had that kind of moment, and it wasn't a dream. It was 25 years ago, the 1988 Hollywood Gold Cup, and it not only remains a great moment in Lewis' 32-year training career, but a classic moment in the sport.
That race was a promoter's dream. The previous two Kentucky Derby winners, Ferdinand in '86 and Alysheba in '87, were entered, with their Hall of Fame riders in place. Bill Shoemaker was on Ferdinand, Chris McCarron on Alysheba. The track made T-shirts with both horses' faces on each.
Even better, the man who rode the Derby winner that year, Gary Stevens on Winning Colors, was aboard the third choice, Lewis' Cutlass Reality.
Stevens, still riding high off his Preakness victory in May, sat on a railing at Santa Anita's Clocker's Corner this week and remembered.
Heading for home, he said, he was right behind leader McCarron, with Shoemaker a couple of lengths back and to his left. Stevens saw McCarron drifting out and yelled, "Chris, the rail." Translation: Don't let Shoemaker through.
McCarron closed it, and Stevens and Cutlass Reality stormed past and home, a 6 1/2-length winner. The victory was decisive, unquestioned. Still, Stevens regretted his action. Still does.
"I looked up to Shoe forever," he says now. "In the jock room, Shoe walked up to me and told me to make damn sure I never did that again. I was devastated. Thank God I was done riding that day. I went in the shower and cried."
Shoemaker later told Stevens to forget it. Twenty-five years later, Stevens hasn't.
Interestingly, Stevens could have ended up on Clubhouse Ride on Saturday. But by the time regular rider Garrett Gomez asked to take some personal time off, Stevens had committed to a ride back East and young star Joe Talamo got the ride.
History can be quirky. Cutlass Reality won the lead-in, the Grade II Californian, in 1988. Clubhouse Ride did the same this year.
And how about this for hunch bettors? Both have the initials C.R.
Faith is enough to stir Craig Lewis, who is fond of saying, "You gotta believe."