The 10th of 12 races was coming up as Mel Lewis took the single step from the jockeys' room to the grassless paddock at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton, Calif. He walked slowly, adjusting the rubber bands tight around the cuffs of his faded blue and gold silks, paying no attention to the curious sign on his right: HORSES WILL BE SCRATCHED IF JOCKEY MOUNT FEES ARE NOT ON DEPOSIT WITH THE PAYMASTER AT PADDOCK TIME.
Going into the stall with his mount, Hi Sunshine, Lewis rolled the handle of his whip between his hands as he looked over the 3-year-old filly. Lewis had never ridden any of the 10 starters in the race, and Hi Sunshine, like the rest of the field, was a model of inconsistency. Collectively they averaged less than a win per year per horse, and Hi Sunshine was 14 to 1.
When the gate opened for the six-furlong race, Lewis put Hi Sunshine right behind the two front-runners, never letting them get more than three lengths away. He was close to the rail, saving every inch of ground, and at the head of the stretch he stuck Hi Sunshine's head in front for the half-length advantage that he held until the finish. The Eddie Arcaro of the bullrings had won again.
Mel Lewis isn't the new kid in town. At 62 he is the oldest jockey in the country. He is also one of few active athletes—and possibly the only professional—to have spanned six decades of competition, from the 1920s through the late '70s. It is highly likely that instead of riding off into the sunset, he will still be hugging the rail in the 1980s. Steve Cauthen? Heck, Lewis has boots and saddles older than Cauthen.
August 6, 1978
In his own way, in his own world, Lewis is a star. He is a grand athlete who prefers to do things quietly, riding two, maybe three horses a day on the Northern California fair circuit. He also rides at Golden Gate Fields and at other Bay Area tracks. In a good year nowadays Lewis can make $30,000. "I like what I'm doing," he says, "and I'm not thinking about packing it in. Over the years I guess I've ridden and known all the great riders except Paul Revere."
According to the records, Lewis' official career began in 1931 at Agua Caliente in Tijuana. "We started together as apprentices," says Arcaro. "I didn't win a damned race, and he was the apprentice sensation of 1931. I stopped racing in 1961, but Mel's still going. People marvel at Willie Shoemaker doing so good at 47, and they should, but Shoe's still a baby compared to Mel Lewis. Johnny Longden packed it in at 56 when he won the San Juan Capistrano in his last ride. But if a guy can keep going at Mel's age, he must really love it."
Lewis does. Records show that he has had 2,130 winners from more than 15,000 mounts and purse earnings in excess of $5 million. Lewis disputes that. "I feel I probably have over 3,000 winners," he says. "I was winning races in my early days at places people today have never heard of. I got my first winner on a horse named Parnell Boy at Tanforan back in 1931. The horse paid $300 for $5 in a betting system called 'preferred options.' It was so long ago that I don't even know how it worked."
During his 47 years as a jockey, Lewis has ridden against George (The Iceman) Woolf, Red Pollard, Jackie Westrope and Longden, among others. When Shoemaker rode his first winner, Shafter V., at Golden Gate in 1949, Lewis was in the same race; in the winter of 1977, when Cauthen took his first mount in a $100,000 race, the California Derby, Lewis finished in front of him.
"Most people don't understand the California fair circuit," Lewis says. "It isn't what people think it is. In the old days the fairs were minor league, but they've changed a lot. The fairs draw big crowds in Northern California, and people bet big money."
Most of the money is bet in small denominations as the fair circuit goes up and down the state for 125 racing days, never staying for more than 14 days at one stop. The season begins in mid-June at Solano in Vallejo, then goes through Pleasanton, Santa Rosa, San Mateo, Ferndale, Stockton, Sacramento, Pomona and Fresno before winding up at Los Alamitos. Along the way there are some strange sights. For instance, several of the tracks have golf courses in their infields, which help turn a profit when the fairs are closed. Affirmed's trainer, Laz Barrera, has a horse running under his colors on the Northern California circuit, and many of the top trainers and riders from Hollywood Park and Santa Anita will pop up to the fairs from time to time to try to win a race. And there are always those things that make fairs what they are: "Black Jack. The Super Steer. See it to believe it! Weight 3,400 pounds. Height 6 feet. Girth 11 feet. Length 11 feet. 10,000 hamburgers on the hoof. Alive. 35 cents per person."
While California racing is beginning to experience the problems that the sport has encountered recently in other parts of the country—a lack of horses, sagging attendance, the threat of off-track betting, increased competition from other sports—the fairs continue to prosper and grow, despite scanty publicity. Over the July Fourth weekend, for example, Pleasanton drew 57,000 people who bet $5.5 million, and while those figures do not approach the totals run up at Hollywood Park, they are impressive enough.
But a day at a Northern California fair is tough on both horseplayers and competitors. The 12-race cards often go on until after 7 p.m., and when a person grown accustomed to the bigger thoroughbred tracks attends a fair for the first time, he discovers that the first race is usually for Appaloosas, the second for quarter horses and the third for thoroughbreds. The daily double is conducted on the fourth and fifth races—and that takes some getting used to.
"There is no doubt that the purses have gone up along with the quality of horses," says Everett Nevin, the director of racing at several of the fair tracks. "Pleasanton might be the perfect example. I can remember when we started out back in 1939, we had only four $2 windows. For the agricultural display we bought tomatoes from stores and put them on paper plates. Then in 1965 we decided to build a new grandstand and used all the good ideas we could find. Today the stands at Pleasanton have just about everything the fans could ask for."
The one thing Pleasanton does not have is air conditioning, and many days the temperature rises to 110°, prompting track announcer Tom Creed to stand in a bucket of ice while calling the races.
"There are days at Pleasanton when it gets so hot you can't believe it," Mel Lewis says. "I know because I make my home here. I only like to ride two, three races a day. I feel that to ride more at my age would not be fair to the owners."
Those who follow the fairs from town to town agree that even at 62 Lewis can ride with the best of them on the circuit. He can get a horse away from the gate quickly and still reach down to put up a strong drive to the wire. Lewis, who stands 5'2" and weighs 113 pounds, is one of about 80 riders working the fairs. Some, like Merlin Volzke and Ray York, have been top riders at big tracks. Others, like 16-year-old apprentice Allen Auten, are just starting out. "I've been watching Mr. Lewis ride for a long time," Auten says. "I was born in Walnut Creek but grew up in Stockton. My father Vern is a trainer, and he has pictures of himself in winners' circles, holding me in his arms when I was a baby. I'd say that you don't know that Mel Lewis is as old as he is when you're riding against him. I just figure he's doing what he wants to do."
The riding fees on the fairs are the same as at the major tracks, the principal exception being that a jockey at a major track gets more chances at bigger purses, particularly those in the $15,000 to $30,000 range. By winning on Hi Sunshine, Lewis' share of the $3,025 winning purse was $302.50. Depending on the value of the race, a jockey gets $45 to $55 for riding the place horse, $35 to $45 for horses that finish third.
Jack Menges, staff writer and handicapper for the Oakland Tribune, served for many years as Lewis' agent, booking his mounts on the fairs as well as at Golden Gate and Bay Meadows. "One time Mel rode the winner of three stakes in one day," Menges says, "and I don't know if that has ever been done before or since. There was a regular stake and a 2-year-old stake that was split into two divisions at Pleasanton, and Mel won all three. We did good together. When certain trainers would come up north from Santa Anita or Hollywood Park, they would get Mel to ride their horses. Mel used to ride a horse named Damage Control some years back, and he became the first horse to win over $100,000 racing in Northern California."
In good years Mel Lewis was able to make over $50,000, but he can't recall winning a race worth over $30,000. "Never rode in the Kentucky Derby," he says, "but I've seen Derbies. The closest I got to riding in a Derby was in 1933."
Some might pick the 1933 Kentucky Derby as the most exciting of all. E. R. Bradley was trying to win the race with Broker's Tip and, to prep the colt for the big event, Bradley shipped him to the old Lexington track to run in the Prospect Purse. Lewis rode Broker's Tip while Don Meade, Bradley's regular jockey, was on another Bradley horse, Boilermaker. Broker's Tip lost the Prospect by a neck to a horse named Warren Jr., with Boilermaker third. Bradley put Meade up on Broker's Tip for the Derby, and they won, battling Herb Fisher and Head Play through the stretch, the jockeys slashing each other with their whips in the roughest of all Derbies. Meade was suspended for 30 days, Fisher for 35. "A lot of people believe that might have been the best race ever," said Lewis. "I don't think so. The best I've seen was Affirmed and Alydar in this year's Belmont."
Lewis was leaning back on a wooden bench in the jockeys' room in Pleasanton, holding the silks he would wear later that day, watching the other riders getting ready for work. Two women walked into the room to get on the scales before riding in a quarter-horse race. "Women riders are only one of the things that's changed down through the years," he said. "Lord, it used to be tough! There was leg-locking between jockeys during a race, and hitting each other with whips, and grabbing the other guy's saddlecloth. Anything went until the film patrol came in. Before the films, the stewards had nothing to back them up when they made their decisions. Now they do. In ways it's almost like a picnic to ride today. Almost, not quite. It's still tough. Years ago I was riding at the Fairgrounds in New Orleans, and it got so cold that we had to wear mittens, and I thought it was crazy at the time. Still do. But during the winter months in the East and Midwest, riders are out on the track with wool masks on their faces and two pairs of gloves, and the wind is knocking them around. I feel sorry for them.
"I got into riding when I was 12, maybe 13 years old. Maybe younger. My father had some horses back in Montrose, Colorado, and he would get them ready to run in the fairs. The big fair was at Hotchkiss, and the races would be at a quarter mile, three-eighths, a half mile. We'd take four, five horses from home to Hotchkiss. It was about 70 miles. We walked them there. Took a little over two days. When we got a little money, my father bought a Model A truck and we went high class."
Lewis smiled and drew a leg up on the bench and leaned his chin on it. "I went to Tijuana in 1931 as an apprentice. Weighed about 90 pounds. If a jock couldn't make 90 pounds in those days, he was just about dead. I'd be up at five o'clock in the morning working horses and then be around the barn most of the day. Pay? Room and board, and the room wasn't much and neither was the board. I didn't ride a winner at Agua Caliente, and we moved on to Tanforan, and I got going. For a kid who didn't get his first winner until April of the year, I did pretty good."
Lewis finished 1931 as the third leading rider in the country, with 146 winners and $133,152 in purses. When he rode his first winner, The Blood Horse noted that Lewis weighed 92 pounds and that he had spent five years "riding relay races and quarterhorses." Later that year the Coldstream Stud bought Lewis' contract for a then astonishing $10,000. "He is the best prospect I've ever seen," Trainer Jim Lowe said at the time, "and I'm no spring chicken."
Of the $10,000 contract fee, Lewis' family got $3,500. "That was a huge amount of money then," Lewis said. "It was just about unheard of. Went to Chicago with Coldstream, and they put me up at the Cicero Hotel. It was just about the biggest thing I had ever seen. I got $350 a month and paid for all my mounts and got staked too. Rode at Pimlico, Laurel, Bowie, Saratoga, Belmont."
There are few places Lewis hasn't ridden. "I remember him from years back," says Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Adams. "It must have been up in Seattle. I had to quit when I was 44 years old because of a bad back. To go on this long is remarkable. I understand the worst injury he ever suffered was a broken collarbone. Well, if you have to have an injury, that's the place to have it. I had more than a few of those. You never know when a horse falls what might happen. My grandson, Johnny Adams Jr., got smashed up bad this spring at Bowie, and he's riding a bicycle now, trying to get himself back in shape. Nobody knows how long it will take him. It's all such a matter of luck, both the good and bad parts of it."
When Lewis isn't riding, he can be found in his mobile home on the fair grounds at Pleasanton, often playing with his 13 grandchildren and one great grandchild. "They keep you young," he says, "and when I'm not with them, I like to get my hands on old cars and soup them up, get them to run faster. I can find a lot of hours of joy just tinkering around with an old Chevy. A lot of people wonder if my family worries about me riding. Nope. I have four children, ranging in age from 42 down to 25, and they're used to it by now. My wife doesn't worry about it at all. Heck, every year she goes out to see me ride at least once."
A rider must change his styles as he goes from place to place on the fair circuit because the stretches and widths of the tracks vary greatly. Pleasanton, for instance, has a 1,085-foot stretch; Fern-dale's is only 530 feet. And Lewis knows full well the odd twists racing can take.
"Years ago," he says, "I used to ride a horse named Three Bars. He is one of the most successful sires of quarter horses in the country. I did good with him, but one day when I was scheduled to ride him, I had a commitment to ride another horse in a race that Three Bars was in, and I couldn't get out of it. Well, Three Bars got out on the lead, and there was no way anybody was going to catch him. But a way came up. A dog ran out on the track in front of him, and he got spooked just enough so I could beat him a nose on the wire. In racing you never know."
Lewis does not know how long he can continue riding, but right now he has no intentions of quitting. "I feel too good," he says. "I enjoy life. I'm no millionaire, but I made enough to get by on. Heck, what else is there?"