In 2003, Barbara Banke told her husband, the late Jess Jackson, that it was time for him to find a hobby. Jackson, the former lawyer turned wine tycoon had, with Banke, built Jackson Family Wines into a 14,000-acre, five-million-case- and $500m-a-year business. But he was guilty, at 73, of micromanaging. Not only that, says Banke, but ‘he was driving me crazy’. So Jackson bought a share in a racehorse.
Within two years of his modest initial outlay, Jackson had spent $22m on 90 mares to kick-start a breeding operation – and a similar amount on a suitably expansive facility to house them. Two years later, Curlin, a colt in which Jackson had acquired a majority interest, racked up a string of comprehensive victories to become America’s Horse of the Year.
Stonestreet is among the largest breeding farms in Kentucky
Today, Stonestreet is among the largest breeding farms in Kentucky, housing around 100 mares spread across three sites. Within the past 15 years, it has become the biggest seller of yearling racehorses in North America. And that is largely down to Banke. When Jackson died from melanoma in 2011, aged 81, nobody was quite sure what approach Banke would take with the family business. Jackson had been very much the public face and image of both the wine and equine interests. The latter, despite its startling success, represents but a fraction of the scale of the wine business, and wasn’t on anyone’s list of priorities. But Banke is not someone to enter into things lightly. She likes a challenge – and she likes to win.
There are commonalities between her twin vocations of racing and wine, not least the annual cycles both on and off the racecourse. Similarly with breeding, there is a reason, for example, why horses are raised in Kentucky. The limestone bedrock there supports the growth of the famed bluegrass, which is high in calcium, strengthening bones. Terroir in equine form, you could say.
There is, equally, the odd vinous reference at Stonestreet: barns are named after grape varieties. In Chardonnay, former star filly Rachel Alexandra is berthed. Rachel Alexandra was purchased by Jackson after she won the Kentucky Oaks by a staggering 20 lengths. She went on, in 2009, to become the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness Stakes as she followed in the hoofprints of Curlin by being named Horse of the Year. But her career as a dam has been more troublesome. An initial dream pairing with Curlin led to the birth of the aptly named Jess’s Dream, but the colt’s performance on the track didn’t live up to expectations. Similarly, after a difficult second birth, Rachel Alexandra has stepped back from mating duties. Just as with wine, nothing in this game is predictable…