01/23/2004 12:00AM

Beware of 'Luther' on rise

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ALBANY, Calif. - Trainers don't win 31 percent of the time by putting horses where they can't win.

So Andy Mathis's decision to put razor-sharp At a Boy Luther in Sunday's Golden Gate feature, a six-furlong allowance race, is worth examining.

At a Boy Luther, a 5-year-old gelding, has won five times since being dropped to the bottom in a $3,200 claimer last September, and he's 3 for 3 at the current meeting.

Mathis claimed him for $8,000 on Dec. 5, and At a Boy Luther won for a $12,500 tag on Dec. 29.

Stage Player, second at this level to Onebadshark and Spy Me Not in his past two starts, may be the one to beat, but he drew the rail and has no choice but to go early. I'mallwilly also has good speed, but comes off a very tough race when he lost by a nose to Beyond Brilliant 11 days ago.

At a Boy Luther has stalking speed and should be in position to get first run down the lane under Chance Rollins, who has been the meet's hottest rider of late.

"We're taking a shot," Mathis said. "He's a Cal-bred so the purse for him is almost $44,000. There was a $16,000 claimer, which might have been the next logical step, but it had Waki American and Fog City Willy, and they've already won this condition."

Lewis: tough and classy

Former jockey Mel Lewis, who died Tuesday at 88, was one of the toughest riders on the northern California circuit and also one of the sport's true gentlemen.

Lewis, who retired in 1981, rode in seven decades, beginning his career in the 1920s, before races were filmed. He was sly, capable of knocking a rider's boot from his irons or blocking a rider's shoulder as he tried to pass. But his rivals respected him.

"He was a helluva rider and a real gentleman," said Paul Frey, who is now a valet. "He knew all the tricks."

Retired rider Art Lobato had a rude introduction to Lewis.

"He got me one day," Lobato said. "I got by him and maybe I brushed him, but I didn't bump him. He stood up and jerked his horse's head, and I got disqualified. When I got back to the room, all the jocks teased me that the old man had schooled me.

"We became friends after that. I know he was still riding in his 60's. He was the oldest jockey I ever competed against."

Lewis was probably best known for his rides on Damage Control, the first horse to earn more than $100,000 competing solely in northern California, and Kay Cee for his son-in-law Cliff DeLima.

"He and Jack Robinson were the best around here," DeLima said. "When trainers sent horses up from down south, they wanted Mel to ride."

Lobato agreed that Lewis was very cagey. "He'd open the door just enough that you thought you had room but once you got there, you didn't," he said.

When Roberto Gonzalez, the current leader in the Golden Gate jockey standings, first arrived in northern California in the late 1970's, Lewis was generous in offering him help and advice.

"He was a classy rider," said Gonzalez. "He was one of those riders you learn a lot from. Every time I had a problem, he was the man."