The Kentucky Derby doesn’t exactly jump to the front of sports fans’ minds when they hear the names Rashard Lewis and Wes Welker.
But as horse owners, the two professional athletes both eye being in the Churchill Downs winner’s circle someday.
“It’s most definitely a dream,” said Lewis, better known as a Miami Heat forward.
In fact, Lewis already has had a horse run for the roses. He was among the owners of Join in the Dance, who finished a respectable seventh of 19 in the 2009 Kentucky Derby.
Welker, who recently signed a free-agent contract with the Denver Broncos, plans to run Undrafted in the April 13 Blue Grass Stakes at Kenneland. Although his horse is bred for turf, Welker would love to attend his sixth straight Derby with a rooting interest.
Welker is scheduled to be at Gulfstream Park for the Grade 1 Florida Derby on Saturday. A South Florida resident, Welker took part in the post-position draw this week despite not having any of his horses running on race day.
Lewis will be in San Antonio on Saturday, as the Heat prepare for their game Sunday against the Spurs. His horse, Cigar Street, will be competing in the Grade 3 Skip Away Stakes at Gulfstream before the Florida Derby.
Cigar Street, a 4-year-old, opened as the 5-2 Skip Away favorite and will be trying to win a third straight race and fourth in his last five starts.
Lewis said he wishes he and his Cigar Street co-owner, longtime friend Jake Ballis, hadn’t run their horse for a fourth-place finish in last year’s Louisiana Derby. The colt then was sidelined with shin splints until December.
“We had (Kentucky) Derby fever after he won last March at Fair Grounds, and we turned around and ran him too fast,” Lewis said. “We should have waited and ran him in the Arkansas Derby. We made a mistake because we could have run him in the Kentucky Derby and he probably would have had a good run at it.”
Despite the regret with Cigar Street, Lewis says his basketball career has helped him remain level-headed in terms of expectations for his horses.
“I understand the winning and the losing,” Lewis said. “My friend Jake was furious when White Rose came in a good second (at Gulfstream Park on Dec. 23). Jake was red in the face and everything, but I tell him, ‘You have your good days and you have your off days. It’s the same way with horses.’”
They had a good day on March 8, when White Rose, their 3-year-old filly, broke through by winning a maiden special weight race at Gulfstream.
Welker also expressed an understanding of what horses go through, especially when it comes to training and recovering. He said the races themselves compare to a game on the gridiron.
“It’s almost like the feeling of winning a game and competing, and seeing all the work that goes into that,” Welker said. “I look at the horses a lot like athletes like ourselves.
“You look at a horse, and you say, ‘That horse is almost too muscular.’ You see guys on the field who are too big and too stiff, they just don’t move as well — same with horses. You want to be able to be long and have the stride.”
Both Welker and Lewis said their interest in horse racing started more as a hobby, but definitely has developed into something more.
“I’ve always kind of enjoyed it, then I met a family friend of ours, (horse owner) Gatewood Bell,” Welker said. “We started out really small with me in on couple of horses, then had some success and built from there. “
Lewis was a little more cautious before teaming up with Ballis, a former AAU high school teammate.
“I started learning more about the sport overall before I decided to jump right into it,” said Lewis, who now cites Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr. as an adviser.
“That’s how I am. I’m a quiet person. I sit there quiet and observe before I say anything.”
Both Lewis and Welker have been horse owners a little more than five years.
When Join in the Dance ran in the ’09 Kentucky Derby, Lewis was unable to attend because his then team, the Orlando Magic, was competing in the NBA playoffs.
The colt that opened as a 50-1 shot actually led into the final turn.
“My mindset before the race was, ‘OK, let’s just have a good run,’” Lewis said. “But he’s leading the whole way into the final turn and my eyes starting getting big.
“After the race I’m saying to myself, ‘This is gong to be easy,’ … but it’s not easy. A lot people have been in this business a long time and haven’t even made the Derby yet, so we were just fortunate to make it with our first horse.”