06/16/2011 11:58AM

Jess Jackson's stable carries on with Banke

Barbara D. Livingston
Barbara Banke and Jess Jackson, with bloodstock advisor John Moynihan (right), in August 2009. After Jackson’s death in April, Banke said she had no plans to downsize Stonestreet Stables.

By 2003, Jess Jackson needed a hobby, if that is the word. Jackson wanted something that would take him away from his core business. He had tried a few things along the way, all of them unsatisfactory, costly, or both.

“He was a very good golfer, something like an 8 handicap,” said Jackson’s widow, Barbara Banke (who once shot a hole-in-one en route to an 18-hole total of 101). “But he didn’t want to be out on a golf course every day. So one day he said to me, ‘I’d like to buy a few horses that might be able to run a little.’ I told him to go ahead. He had dabbled in horses before, and he needed something that might get him to back off his micromanaging in the wine business.”

Jackson, who had been introduced to racing through an uncle and great uncle 40 years before, started out by buying a 50 percent interest in one horse. The old joke came into play: He got the end that eats. He might have been looking for horses that could “run a little,” but this horse could run very little.

“He was just a horse,” Banke said. “But before long, Jess had bought 300 more.”

Among them, of course, were Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, who combined to make the Horse of the Year title Jackson’s private preserve from 2007 through 2009. But Jackson’s roughshod run in Thoroughbred racing ended in April, when at 81 he died after a three-year battle with a rare form of skin cancer.

“He thought he was going to beat it,” Banke said. “He was just as determined about that as anything else. He kept saying that he would be around for a long time. It was not easy, but he was never in much pain, right to the end.”

Jackson had his detractors, and some of his actions − such as withholding Rachel Alexandra from the 2009 Breeders’ Cup because of his disdain for Santa Anita’s hybrid racing surface; suing advisers whom he alleged had cheated him; and peeking under the carpet where some of the game’s thornier issues had been swept − were unpopular in some quarters. But no one cheered his passing, if only for selfish reasons. The alarmists could see an already dire horse shortage worsening if the post-Jackson Stonestreet Stables downsized. It has been happening to racing right and left: The deaths of Allen Paulson, Bill Young, and Bob Lewis, just to name three, have left gaping holes that have been difficult to fill.

It should come as a relief to the industry, then, that Banke, who became Jackson’s second wife in 1984, said that she has “plans to continue” the Stonestreet operation with the numbers similar to what her husband left behind.

“I very much enjoy racing and the breeding end, as Jess did,” said Banke (pronounced BANK-ee). “I don’t see any decrease. I even see Stonestreet becoming multi-generational some day.”

Jackson had three children with Banke − he had two from his first marriage − and Banke said all three go to the races and enjoy themselves. In May they were part of a large group that saw Astrology, which Banke owns in partnership with George Bolton, finish a game third in the Preakness Stakes. Banke also has a granddaughter, Hailey Hartford, who is just finishing her undergraduate work and plans to enroll in a veterinary school.

Banke practiced litigation law for 13 years. She relished her courtroom time and even argued and won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, but she said the grunt work of the calling wore her out.

“Not many lawyers enjoy the discovery phase of a case, the time-consuming work that goes into that, and I was no exception,” she said.

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She joined her husband in managing Kendall-Jackson Estates, one of the country’s largest winemakers. Sometimes, to successfully handle the roles of a multi-tasking executive in two widely different undertakings, more than a little juggling is required. When it was announced by trainer Steve Asmussen that Astrology would run in the Preakness, Banke said she remembered that she had a wine-tasting appointment the same week at Kendall-Jackson in Lakeport, Calif., north of San Francisco. Couldn’t someone else at the winery take a busload of tourists around the grounds? But the taster was just one person − Robert Parker, publisher of The Wine Advocate, an influential newsletter.

Parker wrote this about Kendall-Jackson earlier in the year: “Their Chardonnay has always been good, but dramatic increases in quality have taken place in the Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon programs.”

In other words, Parker is a critic who is not to be trifled with. He lives in Baltimore, so it helped that after his day at Kendall-Jackson, he and the Pimlico-bound Banke were headed in the same direction.

Jackson paid $1.6 million at auction to buy Quiet Eclipse, who was in foal at the time with the colt who became Astrology. Banke was at his side, as she was for many of the sales Jackson attended.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I thought he was going too far, but it wouldn’t have made any difference, because once he made up his mind about a horse, there was no stopping him. He was a determined man in everything he did.”

Astrology, who hadn’t run in the Kentucky Derby, also sat out the Belmont but is expected to jump back into the fray soon. The Haskell at Monmouth Park or the Travers at Saratoga are possibilities, with the chance of a prep race before that.

“The way the 3-year-olds have been knocking each other off, we feel our horse belongs with this group,” Banke said.

Bolton, who owns half of Astrology, said he is pleased with the way the colt has been handled.

“It was the right thing for the horse,” he said of skipping the Derby. “The horse got sick going out to California early in the year and didn’t have the right foundation for the Derby.”

Bypassing the Derby was one of the last decisions Jess Jackson made.

At the start, Bolton was a 20 percent investor in Curlin and ended up with 31 percent. Besides Astrology, he and Banke are partners in Dominus, another 3-year-old, who was caught at the wire by Machen in The Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial at Churchill Downs.

“Although I was a minority partner in Curlin, Jess and Barbara never made me feel like I was in the back of the limo without a phone,” Bolton said. “It’s funny, the best luck I’ve had in the business has been with horses that I’ve partnered with them. The ones on my own are something else again. Besides the winning and losing, being around Barbara is so much fun. In one word, she’s a winner. She loves her family, she loves her farm, she loves her stallions, she loves her foals, she loves her yearlings, she loves everything about the game. And when it comes to making a big decision, you don’t have to worry about Barbara. She’s capable of making it.”

What’s interesting about Jackson buying Rachel Alexandra privately, for a reported $10 million, is that he had expressed to Banke an aversion to racing fillies. He wanted to disperse all the fillies in the stable. An insatiable student of bloodlines, Jackson concluded that many of the best horses came from mares who hadn’t raced. At the time, Stonestreet had six high-priced young fillies in training, and Banke suggested that they race them in her name. Thus was born Banke’s Grace Stables, Grace being an acronym for Girls Rule And Competently Endure. One of the Grace horses was Hot Dixie Chick, a multiple stakes winner who is now, like Rachel Alexandra, in foal to Curlin. After sharing a stallion, the two broodmares share a paddock at Stonestreet Farm in Lexington, Ky.

“They are the best of buddies,” Banke said. “It’s amazing how they get along. They’re never more than six feet away from one another.”

Rachel Alexandra will foal her colt sometime around Feb. 1. Banke, who has named most of the Stonestreet horses, assiduously studies The Jockey Club’s eligible-names lists and settled on Astrology after finding that an obscure horse had raced by that name before, but the name had been released and was available again. Banke is receptive to suggestions for the Curlin-Rachel Alexandra offspring.

“There are two ways to go,” she said. “It could be a blend of the parents, or the colt could have a name of his own, unrelated to the pedigree. That’s the way I’m leaning right now. We have a lot of time.”

Most breeders would have been ecstatic that Rachel Alexandra’s first foal was going to be a colt. Do the math: Down the road, a retired colt is good for 40 or more foals a year; a broodmare gives you one.

“I still think it would have been exciting if she was going to have a filly,” Banke said. “Just to see if she could have approached Rachel Alexandra in greatness. That would have been a tall order, sure, but it still would have been fun, just to see.”

Long before Jackson was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, he and Banke had long discussions about the future of the racing and breeding operation. After all, Banke was almost 25 years younger. Toward the end, they agreed the stable should move on with gusto, the only concession being a logical stock reduction to make the operation more manageable. Even with the reduction, the Stonestreet inventory includes 30 horses in training, a broodmare band of 90, and partial interests in about a dozen stallions, plus Curlin. Ah, Curlin. Banke has retained 20 shares in the two-time Horse of the Year and estimates that she will race at least four of those foals when Curlin’s first crop reaches racing age in 2012.

Banke and Jackson were on the same page before they were married, long before they entered the horse business big-time. Banke, now in her late 50’s, was not long out of law school when she and Jackson, working for different firms, represented an 80-year-old Santa Cruz, Calif., woman who wanted to leave an investment property to her children but was being told by the city that the tract was being rezoned for a public park. An out-of-court settlement was reached, and the property was eventually converted into a parking lot.

After Banke and Jackson were married, they continued to share cases. There have been suggestions that Jackson might have been making more money handicapping and betting horses than he did practicing law. This was before the wine business, which he launched in 1982 with his first wife, Jane Kendall, really started to kick in.

“That’s the truth,” Banke said. “Jess was a very good handicapper. I didn’t know anything about the track, and he took me line by line, showing me how to read the past performances in the Racing Form. Jess didn’t bet much − that is, he didn’t bet many races. He had tremendous discipline, to skip races. He might only bet one race a day many times. But I was a two-dollar bettor then, and I still am.”

Banke corroborated a story about Nancy Reagan at the White House. Kendall-Jackson had just come out with its first Chardonnay. The President’s wife served it to her guests, and Herb Caen wrote about it in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“It was a small volume,” Banke said. “But it sold out. Overnight. That sort of got Jess started.”

The watershed for Jackson might have been the case he and Banke shared in Honolulu. It was an appeal of a decision involving a development company against the city, before the Ninth Circuit Court. Katie, their first-born, was 2 or 3 and had been brought along.

“The city prevailed,” reported Gideon’s Trumpet, a legal blog, “but the important human element of the story is that when the case was argued, the actual argument was delivered by [Banke]. Jess sat outside the courtroom, playing with their new baby. By then, his heart was evidently with his new business.”

Indeed it was. The case in Hawaii was steeped in local politics. “That was his last one,” Banke said. “He had gotten disenchanted with the law.”

Ahead were horses by the carload, and the good times that went with them. The high point for Jackson, more than any of Rachel Alexandra’s wins, was Curlin’s win in the Dubai World Cup in 2008.

While Jackson was falling in love with Curlin, Banke was going home with memories of Pancho, their stable pony who had also made the trip.

“He was a big white horse, maybe 17 years old by then,” Banke said. “He would eat anything. Jelly doughnuts, Doritos, anything. When they ran the race, we thought Pancho might like to watch. He was supposed to be out of view by post time, but they made a special dispensation. They found him a spot and let him watch.”

Whatever happened to Pancho?

“He’s still around,” she said. “He was at Pimlico, helping Astrology get to the post.”