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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.
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."