In the days when Lewis Burrell was splitting the cost of daily-double tickets or scuffling to make a living in poker games, he surely never dreamed he might own one of the best racehorses in America.
He could not have imagined, either, that his son, Stanley, would adopt the name M.C. Hammer, become the country's best-selling recording artist and enable the family to get into the horse business on a serious level. The Grammy Award-winning rapper and the rest of the family will be at Belmont Park to watch their brilliant filly, Lite Light, run in Sunday's Mother Goose Stakes and attempt to prove she is the best 3-year-old of her sex.
The Burrells are quickly becoming the most prominent black owners in a sport that has always been overwhelmingly white. And they are different from other owners in a less obvious respect too. While many newcomers enter the thoroughbred business as lambs ready to be fleeced, the Burrells have launched their operation in a shrewd and wary manner. "My sons and I are gamblers, and I can spot shysters from 10 miles away," Burrell said.
Lewis Burrell started playing the horses 25 years ago in Oakland, although his main gambling passion was poker. "I was the best player in a lot of games," he said, "and people told me I should go to the Oaks Club (a prominent legal card room). This was the late '60s, and there weren't many blacks going there, but I started going -- and winning.
"I was a warehouse supervisor at the time and I told myself I was wasting time working. I started gambling full-time -- and it was the worst mistake I ever made. All of a sudden, when I had to win for survival, the cards wouldn't come."
In order to support himself, Burrell went to work for the Oaks Club as a dealer, and he is now the manager there, but his chastening experience as a professional card player did not diminish his love of gambling. He continued to go to the races regularly, taking his children with him, and two of them came to share his enthusiasm for racing and betting. Louis Jr. (sic) told him, "Pops, one of these days we're going to own a couple of horses."
Stanley Kirk Burrell didn't share this interest. His preoccupations were music, dancing and baseball. When he was 11, he was doing dance routines in a parking lot before an Oakland A's game when team owner Charlie Finley saw him, invited him to watch the game from his box and eventually made him the club's batboy.
Some of the players noted a resemblance to Hammerin' Hank Aaron, and dubbed him "Little Hammer." He developed into a good enough player to merit a tryout with the San Francisco Giants, but it was, of course, as an entertainer that he would prove himself a big leaguer. M.C. Hammer has brought rap music to a mainstream audience and his album, "Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em," has sold 14.5 million copies worldwide.
It was because of this success that Louis Jr. -- Hammer's manager -- could say to his father, "Pops, don't you think it's time to fulfill your lifetime dream?" They met Jerry Hollendorfer, the top trainer in Northern California, and started claiming some mid-priced animals. They purchased some 2 year olds, then a good 3-year-old colt, Media Plan, then Lite Light.
They were keenly aware of the pitfalls they faced as new owners. Lewis Burrell said: "We had an idea what this business is about, and we didn't want to put too much responsibility in any one person's hands. We have a trainer to train our horses; an agent who works exclusive for our stable; our own vet." But the father conceded that no amount of prudence could persuade his one skeptical son that this was an intelligent investment: "Anytime I'd mention horses to Hammer, he'd just say, 'Pops, I've heard all the stories about horses. You don't want no horses.' "
Lite Light made him change his mind. The filly already was a well-established performer when the Burrells bought her earlier this year, but she improved sharply and reeled off four straight victories in major stakes. When she ran in the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park, the owners were so confident that their wagers dropped the filly's price from 8-5 to 4-5 in the last minute before post time. (They reportedly put some $30,000 through the betting windows.)
And when she ran in the Kentucky Oaks, her 10-length victory was so impressive she looked as if she might be the country's best 3 year old of either sex. M.C. Hammer was touring in England at the time, but he managed to see the Kentucky Oaks on television -- and many of his doubts about the wisdom of buying horses were suddenly dispelled.
After the Oaks, Burrell announced the filly's next objective would be the Belmont Stakes. Yet last week he overruled himself, deciding to run Lite Light against fillies in the Mother Goose -- another example of his pragmatic approach to the game.
"We feel she can beat anybody," Burrell said, "but the field was getting too big, and it didn't make any sense to pay $50,000 (as the supplementary entry fee) and then draw the 14 hole. And in a big field you've got the possibility of injury." But he also was swayed by all the local hype for Meadow Star, the champion 2-year-old filly of last season, who had just scored an impressive victory at Belmont to make her record a perfect 10-for-10 against members of her own sex.
"The world wants to know if we can beat Meadow Star," Burrell said. "We'll make the world happy." The confrontation of the two fillies is, in many ways, a more compelling matchup than the Belmont Stakes itself but Lewis Burrell, for one, has no doubt about the outcome.
"When it gets close to post time," he said, "you'll see a big change in the odds -- and you'll know the Burrells are at the window." Unlike other owners who lose touch with reality when they get a good horse, Burrell hasn't forgotten who he is. And he's still a gambler.