05/04/2016 9:46AM

Banke takes Stonestreet Farm to new heights

Barbara D. Livingston
Barbara Banke has overseen Stonestreet Farm since the death of her husband, Jess Jackson, in April 2011.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It would be off the mark to say that Barbara Banke simply “carried on” at Stonestreet Farm following the death of husband Jess Jackson five years ago.

Instead, Banke, with her own style of leadership, has put her own spin on shaping what is now an international operation, strengthening Stonestreet’s broodmare band, campaigning several top runners, forging partnerships with other industry leaders, expanding the farm’s land holdings, and strategically acting as a major force in the auction arena. Her actions have put three fillies in Louisville this week to carry Stonestreet’s gold silks in the Kentucky Oaks. Two are homebreds, including Rachel’s Valentina, the daughter of the immensely popular newly elected Hall of Famer Rachel Alexandra.

“It’s a very exciting time for us,” Banke said.

Banke and Jackson, both attorneys, met when they worked for competing law firms. They became partners and later married. Banke now serves as chairman and proprietor of Jackson Family Wines, an outgrowth of the original Kendall-Jackson winery.

Jackson, whose uncle owned a breeding operation in California, purchased the former Buckram Oak estate in 2005 to establish Stonestreet in Lexington and later added a yearling division in nearby Woodford County. Banke has continued to expand Stonestreet’s land holdings. In late 2012, her operation purchased the former Vinery training facility in Summerfield, Fla., branding the 220-acre property Stonestreet Training and Rehabilitation Center.

Jackson was a showman known for high-dollar deals and audacious campaigning of his horses, including the acquisition, in an embattled partnership, of eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin following his maiden win and the reported $10 million purchase of Rachel Alexandra following her Kentucky Oaks win, after which she won the Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward against males to earn Horse of the Year honors. Banke was involved in the racing business – she campaigned Grade 1 winner Hot Dixie Chick under the banner of Grace Stables – but preferred to take a more reserved role.

But still waters run deep. A former land use and constitutional law attorney, Banke has argued winning cases before the Supreme Court. Fortune magazine has listed her among the World’s Most Powerful Women.

Jackson died in April 2011 following a three-year battle with cancer, shortly after learning that Rachel Alexandra was carrying her first foal, to the cover of Curlin. After the mare delivered the aptly named Jess’s Dream, Barbara planned the mating to Bernardini that resulted in Rachel’s Valentina. The filly’s foaling led to complications that required emergency surgery and a lengthy clinic stay for Rachel Alexandra; the mare is unlikely to be bred again.

And thus, Rachel’s Valentina’s Oaks quest has taken on additional emotional impact. The filly, a Grade 1 winner as a juvenile, returned from a four-month layoff to finish a close second, just caught at the wire, in the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland. She is the morning-line favorite for the Oaks.

“Obviously, she is out of a mare very dear to my heart, but I also believe that she is an expression of how we raise and develop our young stock,” Banke said. “It’s also special to me how excited and engaged race fans have been about following Rachel Alexandra’s offspring.”

Banke also bred Terra Promessa, who is 4 for 5 lifetime, with victories in the Honeybee and Fantasy stakes. She purchased the filly’s dam, stakes winner Missile Bay, and bred her to Curlin.

“Curlin took us all over the world, always showed up on race day, and was tough,” Banke said. “At the start of his stallion career, he had a high-profile horse in Palace Malice, and it was always only going to be a matter of time before he had more horses step up to graded competition. He has 10 graded winners now, and hopefully that number will increase this weekend.”

Royal Obsession was a $1.15 million purchase at last fall’s Keeneland November sale, out of Nat Rea’s Regis Farms dispersal. The daughter of leading sire Tapit won her first two starts, then was fourth in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes and third in the Gazelle.

“She’s always been a beautiful horse, and her pedigree will ultimately be a nice addition to the broodmare band,” Banke said. “She was a $550,000 weanling and a $1 million yearling. We bought her for $1.15 [million] knowing how well she was training, so it made sense to us. She has been a later-developing filly, and she’s improved every start. The Oaks could be her best race yet; she will relish the distance.”

While Jackson entrusted Steve Asmussen – who will join Rachel Alexandra in the Hall of Fame this year – with the bulk of his string, Stonestreet now employs many trainers nationwide, including Asmussen, Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Jerry Hollendorfer, Derek Ryan, Michael Machowsky, and Bob Baffert. Asmussen trains Terra Promessa and Royal Obsession, while Rachel’s Valentina is in the Pletcher barn.

Other top horses campaigned by Stonestreet in recent years include the champion My Miss Aurelia and Grade 1 winners Dreaming of Julia, Cavorting, and Tara’s Tango. All but Cavorting are homebreds. The racing operation also has expanded into Australia, where horses in the Stonestreet colors include Group 1 winner Miracles of Life and Group 2-placed Kangarilla Joy.

With a number of top fillies on the track, Stonestreet’s broodmare band is assured strength in years to come. Banke has moved aggressively to bolster it even further. Acquisitions in the last four years include champion turf female Dayatthespa ($2.1 million at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton November sale); Bella Dorato ($460,000 at the 2012 Fasig-Tipton November sale), the dam of champion Trinniberg; Bella Jolie ($1.6 million at the 2015 Keeneland November sale), the dam of champion Runhappy; Exotic Bloom ($500,000 at the 2013 Fasig-Tipton November sale), the dam of Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Stopchargingmaria; and Grade 1 winners Molly Morgan ($1.35 million at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton November sale), R Heat Lightning ($1.6 million at the 2013 Keeneland November sale), and Sassy Image ($660,000 at the 2012 Fasig-Tipton November sale).

Stonestreet purchased Rachel Alexandra’s full sister, Samantha Nicole, for $700,000 as a yearling in 2012; the winner was bred to Bernardini this spring for a close relation to Rachel’s Valentina.

While Banke has moved aggressively to purchase fillies, part of her business strategy has been to buy or campaign colts in partnership, both to secure their future stud careers and to spread the risk. Carpe Diem, a $1.6 million OBS March 2-year-old, was campaigned in partnership with WinStar Farm, which now stands the multiple Grade 1 winner. Grade 2 winner Dominus raced in partnership with longtime partner George Bolton and Spendthrift Farm; Grade 2-placed Iron Fist, also a seven-figure yearling, runs in partnership with Regis.

“We don’t stand stallions ourselves, so it makes sense for us to partner with folks who do on colts that we hope are stallion prospects,” she said.

With these strategies in place, it makes sense that Stonestreet has the Oaks firmly in its sights.