Banking off the sun-swept turn for home last Saturday, his ears
pricking and twirling like a horse at play, his stride easy and
measured under jockey Kent Desormeaux, Afternoon Deelites looked
for all the world as though he owned the ending of this Santa
Anita Derby. A little blue-collar colt named Larry the Legend
had been right there with him for most of the race, but all at
once, with Desormeaux sitting chilly, Afternoon Deelites, the
unbeaten odds- on favorite, appeared to guarantee the outcome
when he opened a nearly two-length lead off the turn.
Even jockey Gary Stevens, who had flown from Hong Kong to ride
the Legend, sensed he was beaten now. ``Hopelessly beaten,''
Stevens said. ``Just too big a lead to catch him.'' Up in the
box seats, the Legend's owner and trainer, Craig Lewis, saw his
rival's rush through his binoculars. ``With 3/16 of a mile to
go, I thought Afternoon Deelites had left him for dead,'' Lewis
Alas, the Legend was still quite alive and kicking in the upper
stretch at Santa Anita. With his thousands of passionate
followers urging him home from every portal of this old park,
the colt hunched his shoulders, lowered his head and dug . . .
and dug . . . and dug. He did everything but call a cab. And
slowly this most popular of racehorses in Southern California
chipped away at Deelites' lead through the final furlong,
closing to a length and a half at the eighth pole, to a length
with 100 yards to go, to half a length with the finish looming.
``He is the gamest of any horse I've ever ridden,'' said the
veteran Stevens. ``I started asking this colt for more, and he
kept giving it to me. I mean, the harder I asked him, the harder
With 25 yards to go the Legend was at the tiring Afternoon
Deelites' neck, and two jumps later he was at his throat. He
caught Afternoon Deelites two leaps from the wire, and with neck
stretched and nose stuck out, he won by a short head. The
crowd's first standing ovation occurred as Stevens rode the
Legend back, the second as the jockey thrust a fist in the air
when the results of the photo finish flashed on the board.
To be sure, that final furlong of the Santa Anita Derby added
yet another dash of magic to a most unlikely weed-to-flower
saga. It all began last year when one of Lewis's owners, Photini
Jaffe, of Oak Brook, Ill., filed for bankruptcy. At the time,
according to Lewis, Jaffe owed him more than $50,000 in unpaid
training bills. Lewis had four of her horses, including an
unraced 2-year-old, Grand Echezeaux, that Jaffe had bred in
Illinois. The bankruptcy judge gave Lewis a $50,000 line of
credit to bid on Jaffe's horses at a public auction in October.
``If I didn't buy the horses, I got nothing,'' Lewis says.
They were an undistinguished lot, and he bought all four for a
total of $18,200. The cheapest, at $2,500, was Grand Echezeaux,
a sickly bay with a modest pedigree. One of the first things
Lewis did was rename the colt Larry the Legend in honor of his
brother, who had earned the sobriquet for managing the Long
Beach (Calif.) Little League team--along with former major
league slugger Jeff Burroughs--to consecutive world
championships in 1992 and '93. ``As a 2-year-old, he was coughy
and sick all the time,'' Lewis says. ``I thought he could run,
but I didn't know what I had.''
He found out soon enough. By the end of 1994 the colt was
working like a racehorse, and on the last day of the year Lewis
saddled him for a maiden race at Santa Anita. He had the lead at
the eighth pole, but a stylish colt named Petionville--who would
win three stakes races in the next two and a half months--ran by
him to win by nearly two lengths. Not to worry. The Legend broke
his maiden on Jan. 22 at Santa Anita, winning by six, and 17
days later he undressed four others in the Santa Catalina
Stakes, winning by five.
Voila! Lewis had himself a runner. Emboldened, he entered Larry
the Legend in the San Rafael Stakes, a major prep heading for
the Santa Anita Derby, on March 4, and this time he faced no
less than the 1994 2-year-old champion, Timber Country, a
beautifully bred $500,000 yearling purchase who was making his
season debut. The Legend won by a length, with Timber Country
two back in third (he would trail the Legend again in the San ta
Anita Derby, running fourth). Suddenly Lewis had a Kentucky
Derby horse, and he began fielding so many offers to buy the
colt--``It really became a distraction,'' he says--that he felt
compelled to make an astonishing announcement about his blue-
light special: ``He's not for sale at any price.''
With his victory in the San Rafael, the horse attained a
celebrity that is rare among young 3-year-olds. He became common
folk, the people's horse. In the weeks leading up to the Santa
Anita Derby, Lewis began receiving bags of mail. ``It comes
every day,'' Lewis says. ``From all over. It's phenomenal. I'm
just happy to ride his coattails.''
Lewis is on a wonderful roll. Of the four Jaffe horses he
obtained, Lewis lost two in claiming races. The Legend's
bankroll stands at $548,425. And the fourth Jaffe horse? That
would be Bee El Tee, another 3-year-old, who cost Lewis $4,500
and who, on March 15, won the Pirate Cove Stakes on the grass at
Santa Anita and the $36,350 pot that went to the winner. Bee El
Tee is heading for the $200,000 California Derby on Saturday,
and if he runs well there, he may join the Legend on May 6 at
Churchill Downs for the biggest derby of all. Not everyone is
celebrating. On the night of the Santa Anita Derby, Jaffe's
husband, Maynard, said in a telephone interview that he and his
wife had watched the Legend on TV. ``On advice of counsel, we
have been told not to say anything,'' he said. Asked how he
felt, he replied, ``How could we not feel bad?''
Lewis took four of their horses out of that bankruptcy sale, and
he's now chasing racing's most hallowed prize with the two that
cost him a total of $7,000. ``I've never had anything like this
happen to me before,'' Lewis says. ``It's indescribable.
Unbelievable! I'm a lucky s.o.b. And that doesn't stand for
Sweet Old Boy.''