The Legend Lives!
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 said.
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 he ran."
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.