The tree was gone.
In the spirit of restoration for which this spa city is famous, a new tree seemed to have arrived to take its place on Thursday.
One day after a lightning bolt destroyed a 100-foot evergreen in the Saratoga Race Course picnic area, leaving a mini-scrapyard that Roy Hobbs would’ve loved, Rashard Lewis, all 6-foot-10 of him, planted himself in the paddock before the second race.
He and high school buddy Jake Ballis bought the favorite, Battle Red, for $270,000 at the Keeneland April Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale, and they were in town to watch him try to break his maiden for the second time.
No such luck, as Battle Red went crazy-fast early and slow late to finish fifth, beating just one horse.
No matter, Lewis, who was not directly exposed to horses while growing up in Houston, is hooked on racing now.
“Me being an athlete, you just want to win, and when you lose, it gives you more competitive drive to want to get out there and get a horse to win,” he said. “I can feel that when they’re out there racing. It’s a lot of fun. It’s an adrenaline rush.”
A two-time NBA All-Star who won a championship with the Miami Heat last year, Lewis was drafted right out of high school — back when the NBA still allowed such a thing — in the second round by the Seattle Sonics in 1998.
After nine seasons in Seattle, he played for the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards before latching on with the Heat to play a small, but important supporting role on a championship team.
He and Ballis, who is 6-7, were teammates and close friends on the Elsik High School team before Lewis went to the NBA and Ballis followed his father into real estate.
The elder Ballis was a horse owner best known for campaigning Groovy, the 1987 Eclipse Award-winning male sprinter.
“When he was a kid, he used to tell me stories about horse racing,” Lewis said. “His dad got back into the business, and he came to me and asked me if I was interested in partnering on some of the horses they were looking at.
“I told him to let me study it a little more. I knew about it, but I wanted to learn more about the ins and outs before I made a decision. It took about another year or two to look at it and really study it even more and pay closer attention to it.”
A new owner can quickly sour if the first experience is a bad one.
That pile of vet and feed bills, even for a millionaire pro athlete like Lewis, looks a lot uglier when your horse isn’t carrying its weight in the ledger by winning or at least cashing a check now and again.
Lewis didn’t have that problem, because the first horse he owned, Join in the Dance, made it to the 2009 Kentucky Derby, where he was seventh behind 50-1 Mine That Bird.
“Oh, yeah, I got Derby Fever,” he said with a laugh. “Because they told me how hard it was to make it to the Derby, which I pretty much already knew. To get there with my first horse kind of gets you hooked.”
Join in the Dance also was responsible for Lewis’ only other trip to Saratoga.
He broke his maiden here and finished fourth in the Saratoga Special in 2008, and was second in an allowance in 2009.
“The crazy thing about it was I ran into Rick Pitino,” Lewis said. “I know he’s here all the time, but for me, it was different to see a college basketball coach. He was telling me how he was really into the sport and been doing it for a long time. That made me really like it even more.
“I just like the scenery here. It’s a very beautiful city, very green, the weather’s great and just the history of the track. The way it looks is a lot different from most tracks. It’s almost like a family reunion type feel being here at Saratoga.”
Lewis owns seven horses with Ballis, including Cigar Street, who won the Grade III Skip Away at Gulfstream Park in March, and White Rose, who won an allowance at Saratoga last year before finishing second in the Glens Falls.
As his racing hobby grows, his NBA career has reached its twilight.
Lewis was signed by the Dallas Mavericks on July 19, then cut on Wednesday when he failed his physical because of a right knee injury.
He’s due for surgery in a week or so, after which he’ll need four or five months of recovery.
On Thursday, he walked slowly and a little stiffly, signing an autograph here and there and generally remaining incognito in dark jeans, a white short-sleeved shirt and sunglasses. The long goatee was unmistakeable.
Lewis has his championship ring, but after 16 seasons and over 1,000 NBA games, he also has many rings around his trunk. Still, he’s not ready to retire.
“It’ll take a little bit of time, so I’ll be watching at the beginning of the year,” he said. “No. I don’t want to go out with an injury. I want to walk out my own two feet, so I do plan on coming back and playing another year or two.”