02/17/2006 12:00AM

Love of the game spilled over


ARCADIA, Calif. - Bob Lewis already knew how he wanted to be remembered, long before he died early Friday morning at the age of 81.

"Carve it on my headstone," Lewis insisted, more than eight years ago. " 'Loving husband, adoring father, and winner of the 123rd Kentucky Derby.' "

You got it, Bob. It shall be done. Only, a lot has happened since the fall of 1997, when Lewis was still tingling with the excitement of Silver Charm's Derby victory the previous spring. Maybe that memorial could stand an update.

For starters, Lewis won the 125th Kentucky Derby as well, and the winner, Charismatic, became 1999's Horse of the Year. He sold his Foothill Beverage Co. to Anheuser-Busch for enough money to fuel his racing stable for decades to come. And whenever the racing industry needed to tap the wisdom of his years in the business world, Lewis delivered - to the Breeders' Cup, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the Winners Foundation, and in his final years, to the Oak Tree Racing Association. It won't all fit on the marker, but we promise to keep it in mind.

Lewis was in his late 60's before he and his wife became household racing names. When they arrived, Bob Lewis baffled hard-bitten pragmatists with his gung-ho game plan and his insatiable appetite for a good, bracing challenge. He was told he couldn't turn a profit - he respectfully disagreed - then proved himself with a parade of stakes winners and million-dollar deals.

His obituaries will celebrate his champions, but Lewis loved every little race he won - and most of the races he didn't win, as well. It was the game that entranced Bob Lewis, right to his final day.

While few modern owners have enjoyed greater acclaim, Lewis wore it well. Still, horse racing has never seen a better loser, although Bob would blanche at the thought.

When Criollito, his $200,000 supplement, walked out of the gate at the start of the 1996 Breeders' Cup Sprint, Lewis reacted with a quiet, "Oh, no," and never let a harsh word fly. "Well, that's too bad," he said. "Let's go get the next one."

Lewis lost two Triple Crowns in the shadow of the Belmont finish line and barely batted an eye. He was appropriately heartbroken at the death of such fine horses as What a Song and Fatherland, but he felt every bit as bad for the people who cared for them, day in, day out.

"He was the kindest, most gentle man I ever rode for," said Gary Stevens, who flew the Lewis silks on champions Silver Charm and Serena's Song.

No doubt Stevens was reacting to Bob's deep-seated Scandinavian ethic, which gives just about everyone the benefit of the doubt. It took a lot to get Bob Lewis hot, but when he did, the point was made.

Those fortunate enough to get a peek at the private world of Bob Lewis were hardly shocked to know that he basically was still the same guy who used to load and drive his own beer trucks. He loved deep-sea fishing, cruising on errands in his jet-black Porsche, and patiently lecturing on the proper way to pour a cold Bud into a classic pilsner glass. He should know.

Lewis leaves gaping holes in the sport, and in the lives of his family and friends, that will be impossible to fill. Such men don't hatch every day.

More than anything else, however, the death of Bob Lewis marks the temporal end of one of racing's greatest love affairs. Bob and Beverly Lewis, married for 58 1/2 years, made an inspiring, enviable partnership.

They met at the College Side Inn, near the University of Oregon campus. She was an undergrad and he was fresh out of the service, tapping into the GI Bill. He was also a cheerleader - what a surprise - and she was going out for the squad. When Lewis spotted Beverly in line for tryouts, he planted himself at the spot where candidates had to sign in.

"That's how I got Beverly's number," Bob said years later. "And after the tryouts were finished, I called to ask her out for a beer at Tiny's Tavern. As it turned out, I was really contributing to the delinquency of a minor."

Score one for Bob? Perhaps. It depends on who's counting.

"I didn't make the rally squad," Beverly recalled. "But I got the yell leader." They were married in August of 1947, which meant their honeymoon included a stop at Del Mar.

Inseparable in public, devoted in private, Bob and Beverly Lewis overlapped and completed each other with a graceful generosity that made marriage look easy. Near the end, protective and worried sick at Bob's failing health, Beverly was on constant call to nurse his needs, complete his thoughts, and share his pain. To the end, she marveled at her husband's ability to milk the best out of nearly every situation.

"He's the luckiest man I know," Beverly once said, gazing at her husband with a look that dared him to disagree. Bob smiled and happily took the bait.

"Only because I met you, dear," he replied. "Only because I met you."