Profiles from the Horse Racing Nation: Jockey Mel Lewis

January 06, 2015 05:49am
Mel Lewis

As avid HRN fans, perhaps you caught the recent launch of Trainer's Tales Super Seven Kentucky Derby Edition. This article covered a few of the sports finest equine athletes: but what of the human connections to the sport? Without them, this industry would not be what is today -- or exist at all for that matter. Therefore, Trainer's Tales has committed to reacquainting several of these connections with you in 'Profiles from the Horse Racing Nation'.

This edition will highlight former jockey Mel Lewis, a durable athlete who rode racehorses over a span of six decades. Mel’s career began in the roaring 20's, and he was still riding strong well into his sixties. During those years, Mel rode shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the sport's greatest jockeys.

George Woolf, Willie Shoemaker, Red Pollard and Johnny Longden all dawned their silks alongside Mel, at some point of their illustrious careers. California Chrome's trainer, Art Sherman and Mel Lewis shared the same valet during the period that they rode together.

There were several reasons that influenced me to investigate this man’s career. Not the least of these was connecting with a grandson of Mel on Facebook. It was through a photo of Brokers Tip & Head Play: the famous Fighting Finish of the 1933 Kentucky Derby, that I had shared there. Wherein, Joseph Lewis (Mel’s Grandson) commented, “My grandpa rode that horse in a race just prior to the Derby!”

After that, I began digging deeper inside this rider's career, and the task has been an enlightening experience. As it turns out, Mel Lewis was born and raised in the same small southwestern community where I live. Moreover, as a young man he was racing horses with his father in this country, specifically in Hotchkiss, Colorado, the same town where my dad was raised.

The Hotchkiss County Fairgrounds was the place to race in those days, and many good horsemen learned their trade there. Mel rode his first winner at those fairgrounds in the 1920s, although, “officially” it was listed as Agua Caliente.  


Additionally, among the many great horses Mel piloted during his riding career were: Bull Lea, Damage Control, and Brokers Tip. It was a horse named Three Bars, that I recalled. A registered thoroughbred himself, Three Bars just happens to be the foundation sire of the greatest part of all quarter horses in this area today.

Furthermore, I can remember my father confiding that he had often watched Three Bars race. Likewise, it would be feasible to assume that Dad was also watching Mel ride. Not only possible but probable; I can even recall my father mentioning Mel Lewis at some point of those conversations.

Ultimately, Mel’s work ethics compelled me to feature him in this section. Who can not admire a man that in his sixties, was still getting on 1100 pound racehorses to put food on his families table? Today's riders: Gary Bain (62), Perry Outz (60), Russell Baze (56), and Gary Stevens (54), could all be accused of borrowing a page from this man's book on career longevity.

Surprisingly, Mel Lewis is not as yet a member of racing's Hall of Fame, and his page here on HRN’s archives include very little information -- hopefully amended by this writing. As a recipient of the inaugural Jackie Robinson Award, for his humanitarian qualities, Mel’s credibility out of the saddle was equally recognizable.

His daughter (Annette Sawyer) was also instrumental in helping me with this writing. As described by Annette, “Dad was all business when he would put on his suit & tie to serve as president of the Northern California Jockey Guild.” Moreover, his efforts working toward improved rider benefits were instrumental in the organization of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.

The video below captures Mel’s never say die attitude, a quality that may have saved Mel’s life at one point. It was said that Mel rode horses for Al Capone when he went East to work. Annette told the story passed on to her. “Apparently two gang members approached Dad from the rail one morning and handed him a note.

Annette still has that note! It reads, “We lost a bundle on you yesterday and if you're not ready for your final ride, you better win tomorrow.” Mel had two mounts on the card and he rode the hair off of them winning both races. Mel Lewis was literally riding for his life that day. Apparently Capone caught wind of the situation and … as a result, offered Mel protection if he would pilot his horses.

Mel Lewis hung up his tack at the age of 64 and was perhaps the nation's oldest active rider. He left the Horse Racing Nation with many memorable accomplishments on January 21, 2004. For more on this notable Jockey’s career, please visit this link. The article appears in the August 7, 1978 edition of Sports Illustrated, when Mel was 62, and is titled, It's Been a Long Ride. 


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Meet Fred Tunks

More than just a fan, Fred brings a lifetime of experience in horse racing into his articles. His titles in the industry have ranged from groom and gallop person, to assistant trainer, trainer, and owner-breeder. Fred's experiences in racing have brought good times and great memories which he hopes to share with you. Seeking to assume a new role in the sport, Fred is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Journalism and Communications at Ashford University. He writes and does his classes through an online platform from his home in western Colorado. His primary objective is to pass along the knowledge, associated with his years of working at the track, to the readers. His primary interests include pedigree research and industry related news, as well as the history of racing in North America. Through HRN, Fred’s plans are to develop meaningful relationships with the audience while buildin his portfolio as a turf writer. His motto is, 'keep your horses in the worst possible company and keep yourself with the best', and that is why he has chosen to bring you his ‘Tales’ here at Horse Racing Nation. Follow Fred on Twitter @coloracefan and let all your bets be winners!  

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