Bill Nack and Beverly Lewis in 2006 at Churchill Downs

Bill Nack and Beverly Lewis in 2006 at Churchill Downs

Anne M. Eberhardt/Blood-Horse Publications

A Nack BackTrack: The Journey With Beverly Lewis

This week, BackTrack celebrates the late Bill Nack's work for BloodHorse.

At precisely half past eight on the night of May 6, long after Barbaro's surpassing rush to victory in the 132nd Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, they dimmed the houselights in the theater of the Kentucky Derby Museum and began rolling The Greatest Race, that poignant trip in color and sound down racing's most cherished memory lane.

Among those watching and listening raptly was Beverly Lewis, whose high-heeled shoes still bore the sandy traces of her half-mile walk from the barn to the paddock with her Derby colt, Point Determined, some three hours earlier. The son of Point Given had not performed up to snuff, finishing ninth in the 20-horse cavalry charge, but Lewis was perfectly gracious in defeat as Barbaro bounced like a stag into the winner's circle below the owners' boxes. "Oh, I'm disappointed but I'm happy for the winners and the size of his win! I first met (trainer) Michael Matz 25 years ago at a horse show in Madison Square Garden, and he is a nice young man. I'm happy for him."

Alas, for Beverly Lewis, this Derby was already a fading memory as the museum show began. Her lifelong soul mate, husband Bob, died Feb. 17, at age 81; so this was the very first Kentucky Derby she had ever attended without him. They were a matched pair of links on the cuff of the sport, her quiet, shy reserve serving as an ideal complement to his hearty, ebullient, hail-fellow manner; they were truly 1 and 1A, racing's most visible and popular entry at tracks across America, from Del Mar and Santa Anita Park in the West to Belmont Park and Gulfstream Park in the East to Oaklawn Park and Churchill Downs in the hinterland. And now, right up there on the wraparound screen in the museum, was Bob and Beverly Lewis' Silver Charm bounding to victory in the 1997 Derby, the track announcer calling his name—to clapping and cheers from the Lewis contingent—and then there was Bob holding the Derby trophy after Charismatic's shocking triumph two years later, to applause from hundreds of other post-race party guests.

As the lights came on, looking a little misty-eyed, Beverly turned to daughter Nancy and assorted friends and marveled at their enormous good fortune for having won the Derby twice in those two years with horses they had bought as youngsters. "It's just unbelievable," Beverly said. "It did happen, didn't it? (A pause here) Tell me that it did happen!"

Yes it did; indeed, it did.

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That museum show brought to a kind of melancholy close to what had been for Beverly Lewis and her tight-sewn family—Nancy and her brother Jeff and Jeff's wife, Marge Lewis—a Derby week that darted among the shadows of the present and the past, from a visit to the Bluegrass to see their mares; to a morning call at Bob Baffert's barn to visit Point Determined; and of course, to that merry hike from the barn to races, with people snapping photos and calling her name along the way.

For the matriarch of the Lewis family, this was the sentimental journey that she knew she had to make since the day her husband, long suffering from kidney problems, died of heart failure at their home in Newport Beach, Calif. People have since asked her if she was going to carry on, to stay in the game, and she confesses to some surprise at the question.

"I don't know why people keep asking me if I'm going to stay in the business," she said. "I love the business. Bob would be so happy that we're here. It was the only way for me to go. He really enjoyed this. He loved it. He knew I would go on with the racing. He knew I loved the game. He didn't have to tell me to carry on ... It was all unspoken."

That may be, but Bob left his wife with 15 expensive hints at what he wanted her to do. Last September, in precarious health, Bob went to Keeneland to attend the yearling sale. "He said when he went there he wasn't going to buy any horses," Beverly said. "That was his plan. But that's like the kid in a candy shop. You can't go to a horse sale and not buy horses."

Certainly Bob Lewis couldn't. He left with 15 yearlings that cost them a total of $10,585,000, an average of $705,666 each. At one point Bob told a writer for The Blood-Horse at Keeneland, "In case I'm not around, I want to make sure that Beverly has plenty of racing stock."

Beverly laughed aloud when told that story: "I didn't know that. Oh, my gosh! He sure did the job."

Through 59 years of marriage, beginning in 1947, they did about everything together outside of his full-time work as a beer distributor. They spent more hours than she cares to remember flailing across fairways at the dimpled ball. "Neither of us got very good," she says. "Not an easy game." Over some 30, salty, sun-splashed years, on four different powerboats, they explored the Pacific from Santa Catalina down to Mexico and all around the Caribbean, even through the Panama Canal. "We did everything together," she said. "He was my best friend."

"Did you go hiking together?" she was asked.

"No, but we hiked after the horses together," she said. 

Bob Lewis started going to the races at Santa Anita with his parents when he was 12, and he brought his fondness for the game into his marriage. "We got married in 1947 and I worked at a bank," Beverly said. "The bank was open on Saturday and I had to ask for half the day off so I could go with him to the races at Santa Anita. He'd always say, 'We have to get a horse some day.'"

He made a fortune in the beer business. When he finally decided to make the leap, he bought two horses for almost $500,000 at a Barretts sale in 1990. One died of the wobbles and the other took forever to break his maiden; he finally did, at the county fair in upstate Pleasanton. "Anyone else would have given up right there," Beverly said. 

Not Bob. By 1993, with D. Wayne Lukas, he and Beverly were attending their first yearling sale and buying a colt (in partnership with Gainesway and W.T. Young) who would eventually answer to the name Timber Country, winner of the 1995 Preakness Stakes (G1), and a filly who would become far more accomplished than the colt—a daughter of Rahy who would score 10 grade 1 victories on the way to running up $3.283 million in earnings and a place in Racing's Hall of Fame.

"Serena's Song is my first favorite," Beverly said.

"In fact, it was like a reunion of old friends three days before the Derby when Beverly and family pulled up in a black stretch limousine at Denali Stud, a professionally run, neatly kept nursery near Paris, Ky., where the Lewises maintain a small band of broodmares with farm owner Craig Bandoroff. Their longtime bloodstock agent, John Moynihan, was there to provide commentary on the pedigrees and physical attributes of the mares and their foals. Jeff Lewis, who has begun to move into the void in the racing operation created by his father's death, scribbled notes as Bandoroff and Moynihan alternately spoke of the horses.

"Here she is," Bandoroff said quietly.

Out the door of the shed, her ears pricked forward, her bay coat dappled and gleaming in the sun—with a big-rumped suckling colt by Storm Cat at her side—strode La Grand Dame herself. Serena's Song is 14 now but she does not look it; her legs and ankles today appear as clean as the foal's standing next to her—remarkably so given the 38 starts she logged during three years of battling the best horses in America over 11 different racetracks, coast to coast.

Beverly fairly beamed, unwrapping a peppermint, as the mare approached. "Good girl, good girl," she said, extending her hand. "My Peppermint Patty! Here have another."

This was the horse that had taken Bob and Beverly to the summits of the sport. "She was our first big horse," Beverly was saying now. "She did so much for us. She took us everywhere to race. She didn't have to take her track around with her; she could run anywhere. We had a lot of fun with her ... she's gotten to be like an old friend."

That is clearly how the racing industry had come to view Bob and Beverly Lewis, as a team, and never was this sense more touchingly evoked than on May 2, during the Derby Trainers' Dinner, when Chris Lincoln asked her to come on stage. The standing ovation was long and filled with affection. "I was overwhelmed," she said. "My gosh! Everyone stood up. I held myself together till I got back to the table, then my eyes started to water. It was unbelievable. And at the (post position) draw everyone gave me a hand when I went up there to post the number ... It was so overwhelming. I don't know what to make of it ..."

She got the same kind of cheering reception from the crowds as she walked to the paddock along the outer rail of the clubhouse turn with Point Determined. Just as Bob had always been the front man, waving and shouting baritone thank-yous to the crowds, so Beverly has now become less retiring, more outgoing. "Good luck, Mrs. Lewis!" they screamed from the crowds.

"Thank you!" she cried—without the baritone, of course—while waving and smiling back.

Of the scores of remembrances that this Derby rekindled for her, none was more vivid than the museum's reminder of Silver Charm's gutsy head victory over Captain Bodgit. After all, this was the Derby that inspired Bob Lewis to proclaim, "When they plant me six feet under, I want on that tombstone: 'Loving Husband, Adoring Father, and Winner of the 123rd Kentucky Derby.'"

Beverly has not forgotten that. "It hasn't happened yet, but that's gonna happen," she said. "Absolutely! We can't do anything else but that tombstone. I wouldn't dare not do it!"

The lady is a champ.