09/25/2003 12:00AM

Lewis, Oak Tree are kindred spirits


ARCADIA, Calif. - About this time a year ago, Bob and Beverly Lewis took a nice bite out of the Oak Tree purse structure when their 2-year-old filly Composure cruised home by three in the Oak Leaf Stakes.

That was their second Oak Leaf trophy - they also won the race in 1994 with Serena's Song - and this year, when the Oak Leaf goes as part of the Oak Tree opener on Sunday at Santa Anita, they will try to upset Del Mar Debutante winner Halfbridled with Renaissance Lady, a daughter of A.P. Indy who will be running for the seventh time over a seventh different track. In her last race she was a distant second to Class Above in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Even if they were without an Oak Leaf starter, chances are the Lewises could find a pretty good seat, especially since Bob Lewis has just accepted a place on the Oak Tree Racing Association board of directors.

This comes as no particular surprise. During his high-impact 13 years in the game, Lewis has spread himself around to a large number of organizations and causes, while winning all manner of grand prizes with the likes of Silver Charm, Charismatic, Timber Country, and Orientate.

Now, the glad-handing beer guy with the chamber of commerce smile finds himself at the heartbeat of one of the nation's premier racing meets, which this year will be hosting the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships on Oct. 25.

For 35 years, since its 1969 foal date, Oak Tree has donated all profits to an array of organizations and projects. The beneficiaries have included the Center for Equine Health and Performance at the University of California-Davis, the Grayson-Jockey Club Foundation, the Winners Foundation, and the California Polytechnic system of agricultural universities, among many others.

To date, in keeping with its mandate, Oak Tree has distributed more than $18 million in contributions. That comes out to about $30,000 each racing day since that autumn of 1969. It is an admirable record, one that could only be achieved by a meet solely dedicated to the improvement of the sport.

Lewis would seem to be a good fit. He has given away tons of his own money, and not just for yearlings at Keeneland. There are hospitals and universities in California that owe the Lewises a debt of gratitude, among them Cal Poly Pomona, where Oak Tree has had helped maintain a research program into the soundness and training of Thoroughbreds for many years.

Believe it or not, the Lewis Oak Tree appointment met with a ripple of controversy. Because Lewis is an active board member of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, questions were raised regarding conflict of interest. This was not a stretch, since one of the primary roles of the TOC is to negotiate purse contracts with racing associations. Fellow TOC director Trudy McCaffery, who was also asked to join the Oak Tree board, was in the same boat.

In the end, the TOC was willing to make exceptions. The California Horse Racing Board, however, exercised its right to review the resumes of racing association directors and turned thumbs down on the idea of Lewis and McCaffery serving both masters. McCaffery opted for Oak Tree as well.

"I respect and understand the board's decision," Lewis said. "And I have the highest regard for the Thoroughbred Owners of California. I've been there for seven years, three as chairman, and I think it's time to make room for others. I don't resent that the racing board determined that for me. In fact, I'm somewhat embarrassed by having pursued the request to make the exception."

In the end, the chance to be a part of Oak Tree's legacy was a temptation Lewis chose not to resist.

"I have the utmost respect for its creators and the people who have made it functional through these many years," he said. "And they've done it for not very much pay."

Zero, to be exact. It all began with a founding group led by the late Clement Hirsch and Lou Rowan, along with Oak Tree's current president, Dr. Jack Robbins. Oak Tree directors contribute their time and expertise, as well as their personal clout in an increasingly politicized California racing climate, which tends to be dominated by the needs of such publicly traded companies as Churchill Downs Inc. (owners of Hollywood Park) and Magna Entertainment Corp. (with Santa Anita, Bay Meadows, and Golden Gate Fields).

"Oak Tree serves as a good leveler," Lewis said. "It is run by horse people, for the benefit of the industry, and not by stockholders and people insisting upon an appropriate dividend and growth in their stock shares."

Lewis, of course, has nothing against turning a buck. He has been able to enjoy the racing business because of his success in building his Foothill Beverage Co. into one of the largest beer distributorships in the West. And now Lewis has sold Foothill to Anheuser-Busch for an amount that should allow for a comfortable retirement as a Thoroughbred owner and Oak Tree director.

"But, in fact, I am not retired," Lewis said. "We were going to close the deal Friday with Anheuser-Busch. Then their legal department asked to put it off for at least week. And I already had marked on my calendar to report to the Social Security office Monday morning!"