Features 3 July 2019

Stonestreet Farms

When Barbara Banke took on the management of Jackson Family Wines from her late husband, you’d have thought the family’s racehorse operation would take a back seat – but she has built Stonestreet Farms into the top breeding operation in the United States

Words by Guy Woodward

Photography by Bill Phelps

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It was in 2003 that 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 who, with Banke, had built Jackson Family Wines into a 14,000-acre, five-million-case- and $500m-a-year business – 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. 

Jackson had always enjoyed horses, right from when, as an eight-year-old, he sat on his uncle’s shoulders to watch the legendary Seabiscuit race in the late 1930s. This would be a nice route into retirement – something that Banke had been trying to encourage for several years. ‘I used to tell him to enjoy travel,’ she says. ‘But every time we’d travel, he’d try to start a business. We’d go to Tahiti, and he’d talk about growing vanilla.’ 

Horses, it transpired, were no different. 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. Twelve months later, and five years after Jackson had taken up his ‘hobby’, Curlin won the Dubai World Cup – the richest race in the world – and Stonestreet Farms, the nascent breeding arm that took its owner’s middle name, sold the top-priced yearling at the industry-leading Keeneland sales. What could initially have been put down to an astonishing run of beginner’s luck allied to some sizeable investments was, it had become clear, more about making the right choices. ‘He always liked to study anything he became involved with,’ says Banke, with a degree of understatement.

Barbara Banke with one of the foals at Stonestreet Farms

I’m sitting with Banke on a tranquil, hazy April morning at the bucolic Stonestreet Farms in Kentucky. Driving through the rolling hills that define the surrounding landscape, I am reminded of Napa Valley – not so much by the backdrop, which is lusher and greener than Napa’s dry alluvial soils, but by the vast open spaces and grand gated entrances that, as with Highway 29’s statement wineries, stud the broad, winding roads. 

Behind the gates lie sprawling properties that speak of power and money. Their high-roofed wooden structures are somewhat less grandiose than their California counterparts, but they are home to horseflesh that is just as prized – and valuable – as Napa’s slowly ageing barrels of Cabernet Sauvignon. 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 rather than Jackson. 

Her charisma is understated, but she has a clear, steely ambition. She is also, it seems, something of a risk-taker 

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; and while Banke is a couple of decades younger than her former husband – with a restless glint in her eye – the consensus was that she would be working on quietly passing the business to the couple’s three children rather than pursuing any aggressive expansion plans. 

Certainly the equine side of things – which, despite its startling success, represents but a fraction of the scale of the wine business – wasn’t on anyone’s list of priorities. But while Banke may not have Jackson’s natural ebullience, and her charisma is understated, she has a clear, steely ambition. She is also, it seems, something of a risk-taker. 

Barbara Banke’s star mare Rachel Alexandra

It wasn’t always so. In the early days of Jackson Family Wines, Banke – like her husband, a San Francisco litigator – maintained her legal practice, specialising in land purchase. It was a prudent move, not only ensuring a bankable flow of capital but proving handy when it came to acquiring vineyards. By the 1990s, the California wine industry was flourishing and prices were on the rise. Banke persuaded Jackson to play the long game, acquire phylloxera-ridden vineyards at dirt-cheap prices, before replanting them and seeing them flourish.The policy of patience has served Banke well. Whether with wine or horses, the business has been built never to rely on external finance, relying instead on investing cheaply, developing slowly and retaining control. Even with racehorses, they weren’t buying the finished product. Despite Curlin’s astonishing early success, his true worth has been off the track, in retirement – if you can call it that. As a stallion, he covers upwards of 100 mares a year, at a fee of $175,000 a time. Some of the mares are Stonestreet’s own, yielding a production cycle of potential future champions, which are then either sold or raised and trained in-house. Either way, the profits flow.

Banke’s major innovation at Stonestreet since her husband’s death has been the purchase and development of a dedicated Florida training facility for yearlings. Racehorses have a preordained life cycle. After newborns have spent a year being reared at Stonestreet’s lavishly appointed farm, wanting for nothing, Banke and her advisers assess the season’s crop and take a decision as to which to sell and which to keep. Those that are retained go to Florida, where they are broken in and trained towards a career on the course. (It is as two-year-olds that they go to individual, permanent trainers around the country and make their track debut.) 

‘I already had a facility down there that Jess had purchased,’ says Banke, ‘but it would have taken a lot of work to develop it into a training facility, whereas this one is perfect. Before, we were sending horses to other training centres, and sometimes we’d be successful and sometimes we wouldn’t.’ Horses are fragile and, like grapes, react to different conditions – Banke references one racetrack that was too hard, for example, which meant a particular horse didn’t thrive. ‘This [new] place is fantastic; it can do its job.’ In short, it allows her to retain control.

Banke, one senses, likes control. Not in terms of constantly having to assert herself, but to be able to govern those elements that are in her gift. It’s something she remembers discussing with her husband. ‘We’ve always had good managers, but you’ve got to give them room,’ she says. ‘I encouraged him to do that.’

The philosophy works across different disciplines. ‘With winemaking, if you control everything, you get uniformity and bland wines,’ says Banke. ‘But if you have all these genius winemakers – who may or may not be difficult personalities – you tend to get more interesting things.’ It’s a similar set-up with trainers, she says. ‘You have to find the right trainer for the right horse. So, when Wesley [Ward, one of America’s leading trainers] says, “Right, I want to take this filly over to Royal Ascot,” where you’ve never been before, you just say, “Okay, well, let’s see.” And it worked out.’ (In 2016, Lady Aurelia, who was bred at Stonestreet, travelled to Ascot for her second-ever race, where she won the Queen Mary Stakes by seven lengths; this year, Banke had intended to send two-year-old Lady Pauline, also trained by Ward and out of the same dam, to Ascot for the same race. In the event, the plan changed after the horse suffered a minor  injury.)

The importance of the approach is heightened by the impact of elements that Banke knows she can’t control: the weather and condition of the course; injuries; the draw; horses bunching together and denying your horse race room; another horse producing an unexpectedly strong performance. ‘A lot of it, you rely on luck,’ she concedes. ‘It’s similar to wine. Take Lokoya,’ she says of her mountain-based Napa winery. ‘Wonderful Cabernets. In 2017, we were going to pick on the Monday, and then we had fires on the Sunday. So the grapes were still there, but we couldn’t get to them to harvest them for three weeks. By then they were ruined. So a lot of it, on both sides, is down to Mother Nature.’

There are other commonalities between her twin vocations – 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, one might say. Then there are the annual patterns, both on and off the track, and the preparation those necessitate. A horse’s gestation period is 11 months, and a month later, the mare is in heat again, meaning the mating season and birthing season follow a similar yearly pattern as a vine’s bud-burst, flowering and fruit-set. Then there is the progress of a horse – weaned as a foal, broken in as a yearling, trained to race at two, and carving out its reputation at three – and all of it is focused on the long term, with a potential further career as a sire or dam awaiting. And just as some grapes react well to certain sites, so some pairings work or don’t work. Nothing is guaranteed. 

Rachel Alexandra

There is the odd vinous reference at Stonestreet: the barns are named after grape varieties. We check in on Chardonnay, where 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 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. Nothing in this game is predictable. 

Despite the commercial pull of breeding, it is success on the course that most energises Banke. I ask her what her ultimate ambitions are for Stonestreet. ‘Global domination,’ she says with a laugh. ‘Breeding is part of it, and I’d love to showcase American breeding in England. [Lady Pauline, unlike Lady Aurelia, was bred entirely in the US, at Stonestreet.] But ultimately it comes down to success on the track. I’d love to win another Dubai World Cup.’ And you sense that she’d love to do it with a horse she bred rather than one, like Curlin, that she bought. 

She mentions a colt named Good Magic, by Curlin, out of a mare who was one of the first that Banke bred. ‘We loved him from the minute he hit the ground,’ says Banke. The colt was Juvenile Champion as a two-year-old, and then finished second in last year’s Kentucky Derby. Banke pronounces the word ‘second’ as if it were an insult. ‘Yeah. I don’t like second.’ Pity Good Magic, then, who went on to fill the same slot in the Preakness – a feat with which most owners would be delighted, especially considering he was beaten both times only by the mighty Justify, who went on to win the hallowed Triple Crown. As Banke says, though, ‘We just said, “Oh, forget it.”’ By way of consolation, having earned $3m on the course, Good Magic is now standing at stud, for a fee of $35,000. 

Banke says she devotes around 25% of her time to Stonestreet, though it is worth ‘way less’ in terms of the financials. ‘I’m here for the sales in September, and I try to spend part of August in Saratoga Springs [in New York, and home to a prestigious run of race meets], which is my vacation, essentially, because it’s really fun. Horse vacations are really the only kind I do.’ She’s also just been at the ultra-exclusive Guards Polo Club in Windsor, UK, for the final of the Cartier Queen’s Cup, one of the world’s great polo tournaments. Verité, her top-end Sonoma winery, is a sponsor of the club.

When it comes to wine, her focus is firmly on Oregon, where she admits she ‘went in pretty big’ in terms of acquisitions, despite the fact that her husband was lukewarm about its potential. ‘After the economic turmoil of 2008, real estate hadn’t recovered,’ says Banke. ‘So I made a bet that it would recover, and it did – quickly.’ The move tallies with her policy of buying cheap and investing in the asset. She paid around $35,000 an acre in Oregon, a fraction of the cost of California vineyard land; the deals made Jackson Family Wines the biggest vineyard owner in a state that she hopes will be ‘the American Burgundy’. 

Racing at Keeneland
Sunrise views of one of the barns at Stonestreet Farms

Does she have any remaining ambitions outside her current interests? She mentions hospitality. JFW already has a restaurant at its Freemark Abbey winery, and she says, ‘We could go into hotels, although we don’t know much about it.’ It turns out they’re applying for two right now – one at Freemark Abbey and one in Sonoma. Sonoma must have more potential than Napa, I remark, thinking of the ‘buy-cheap-and-invest’ model. ‘Very much so,’ she says. ‘There aren’t many five-star properties there. The one that we’re talking about will be luxurious, but it’ll be more focused on the environment, food and farming – an eco-type place.’

You get the feeling Banke won’t rest easy until a few more ambitions are realised. ‘I have a role model,’ she says. ‘Mr Arnault from Moët.’ Bernard Arnault – chairman and CEO of LVMH, the world’s largest luxury goods company, whose wine portfolio includes Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug, Cheval Blanc and Château d’Yquem – is Europe’s richest man, with a net worth of around $95bn. There she goes again, aiming so low… 

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