For all the money, knowledge and experience that goes into purchasing a young Thoroughbred at a sale, often just plain luck plays the biggest role in selecting a top prospect.
Lee Levinson, an attorney in Tulsa, Okla., experienced just such a moment at the 2015 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, when he first began seriously investing in the racing game.
“My son and I were there watching, and we had already bought a couple of horses at that sale,” Levinson said. “This one horse came up, and it looked good to my son and I — it had what I thought was decent breeding — but the bid was $60,000. I hadn't even looked at it before, and my son hadn't, but we kind of liked him and he was kind of lookin' at us.
“I said, ‘Bid on it, son.' So he bid $70,000 and there were no other bids. I said ‘I guess we got another horse!'”
Named “Lookin at Lee” for that fortuitous moment in the auction ring, the son of Lookin at Lucky out of a Langfuhr mare has been by far Levinson's most successful purchase, earning $852,795 in 10 starts. The colt's runner-up effort in the Kentucky Derby was an “unforgettable” experience for both Levinson and his minority partner, long-time friend Don Nelson, a district attorney. Also involved in the ownership group L&N Racing are Levinson's two sons, Michael and Andrew.
“We don't take any of it for granted,” Levinson said. “The best part is the phone calls I get from friends and relatives telling me how they won money on my horse and asking me how they can get involved in the sport. Even the local new stations in Tulsa have been swamped with stories about him for weeks. It's fun to have so many people rooting for you.”
Levinson can trace his love for horses back to when he was just 10 years old. He was scheduled to take a train out of St. Louis to get to his summer camp that year, so his parents drove him up to Missouri.
“The night before I was supposed to leave for camp, they took me to Cahokia Downs,” recalled Levinson. “My dad made a few bets for me. He gave me five dollars and I won 50 dollars — then I didn't want to go to camp! I thought, ‘Boy, this is easy.'”
It was in the 1980s that Levinson first got involved with Thoroughbreds and quickly learned that the sport was far from easy. He owned and bred a handful of mediocre runners, with a few partners, over the course of several years.
“I figured out real fast that I didn't want to run at the bottom, and unless you want to spend and buy good bloodstock, you have no chance,” he said. “I had a horse that went to Oaklawn Park, and I asked my trainer, old-timer Bert Sonnier, if we had any shot. He said ‘Lee, if the horse could read the Racing Form he wouldn't have shown up.' So that was enough. I basically got rid of everything until I could afford to do it at a higher level.”
That time came in 2015, when the oil and gas law attorney had diversified his interests into tobacco manufacturing, the hotel business and even some real estate.
“I really wanted to do it right, and I learned how to do it right (in the 80's),” Levinson said. “I figured out real fast that you have to have good trainers, you have to have good people, and it costs just as much to train a good horse as it does a less expensive one.”
He selects his own horses at the sales, but Levinson has turned to trainer Steve Asmussen to oversee their care. Lookin at Lee, along with the rest of Levinson's purchased horses, was sent to Texas for his primary education with Asmussen's father.
A man of notoriously few words, Keith Asmussen gave Levinson what could only be considered a glowing report on the young Lookin at Lee, who was bred in Kentucky by Ray Hanson.
“(Keith) said, ‘That horse can run a little bit,'” Levinson laughed good-naturedly. “He doesn't say a whole lot, so that got us excited.”
Debuting relatively early in June of his juvenile season, Lookin at Lee finished fifth in a five-furlong sprint at Churchill Downs. His class allowed him to prevail by 4 ¾ lengths over six furlongs at Ellis Park in his second start, giving L&N Racing its first winner. Looking at Lee then got up to score in the $75,000 Ellis Park Juvenile Stakes in just his third career start.
“After we won the Ellis Park Juvenile, I think Steve (Asmussen) thought that horse could be pretty good,” said Levinson. “He just told me to be patient, that when the races got longer, we'd be there.”
After finishing second in both the G3 Iroquois and G1 Breeders' Futurity, Lookin at Lee took his owners west for their first Breeders' Cup. Dismissed at odds of 30-1, the colt was dead last early on and made a belated rally to finish fourth in the Juvenile.
His late-running style firmly established, Lookin at Lee continued to be mostly overlooked by the wagering public as he entered his sophomore season. Contesting each of the graded prep races at Oaklawn Park, the colt finished third in the G3 Southwest at 5-1, sixth in the G2 Rebel at 11-1, then a sneaky-good third in the G1 Arkansas Derby at 12-1.
“We knew 1 1/16 miles was too short for him,” Levinson said. “But in each one of those graded stakes races, not one horse ever passed us in the stretch.”
Optimistic heading into the Kentucky Derby, Levinson and his partners got quite the thrill when jockey Corey Lanerie slipped up the rail with a furious rally at the head of the lane. While Always Dreaming was a bit too much for Lookin at Lee that day, Levinson believes the colt is far from finished on the major stage, and he will get another chance to shine in Saturday's Preakness Stakes.
“Our horse is sound, and I think he's getting better every race, so that's what's so encouraging,” Levinson said. “I think we'll bounce back good in two weeks. He's kind of like the Rodney Dangerfield of horse racing, because nobody ever gives us a chance. They tell us how we're going to lose, every single time. And it doesn't bother me at all, because he just keeps proving them wrong.”
When he looks back at that fateful day in Lexington when the colt first stepped into his life, Levinson just shakes his head.
“Everything else was selling for a lot more, and nobody wanted this one,” he said. “But there was just something about him that day. I don't know… better to be lucky than smart I guess.”
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