When Stonestreet Stables' Jess Jackson succumbed to melanoma in April 2011, widow Barbara Banke had two choices: disperse the stock and sell his vineyards or soldier forward.
Banke said for her, the choice was obvious— she had essentially spent years of her life interning with an expert in both the Thoroughbred and wine worlds. Her other obvious option was to go back to practicing real estate law, and she didn't think much of that choice.
These days, Banke is one of a handful of women consistently buying horses at the seven-figure levels, and she single-handedly manages Stonestreet's racing and breeding operation. But whether she is one or not, Banke doesn't see herself as a standout simply because of gender in an arena that is still tilted toward men.
“There are plenty of women that are bidding on high quality racing stock, so I am definitely not alone. A lot of them have had great success,” said Banke.
“I think there have always been women who have been active in racing … I think it's coming along.”
Of course, she is used to working with imbalances. When Banke attended law school at UCLA's Hastings College in 1978, 35 percent of the class was female. She became a partner in Jackson's California law firm, and the two began dating just after Jackson launched the winery that would become Kendall-Jackson. They married in 1984 and Banke took the ride along with Jackson in his quest to learn and master the industry.
“I was interested as a consumer, particularly after practicing law,” Banke quipped about her interest in the wine business.
Banke recalled that when Jackson, who had dabbled in horse ownership before, considered purchasing a piece of another Thoroughbred, she was enthusiastic about the idea, even though she didn't know much about racehorses.
“I told my husband to get a hobby in 2003 because he was driving us all crazy micromanaging the wine business,” said Banke.
As we know, Jackson jumped into the sport whole-heartedly, purchasing the farm in Kentucky and finding high-level success with Curlin and Rachel Alexandra. That success with Rachel might never have happened without a little friendly joshing between Jackson and Banke.
“My husband decided that he didn't want to race fillies,” she said. “I said, 'That seems silly. I'll take the fillies, and I'll race them.'”
Banke ran a few horses under the name of Grace Stables. Although not a bad name by itself, the 'Grace' in Grace Stables is actually an acronym—“Girls Rule And Competently Endure.” The first runner for Grace was Hot Dixie Chick, who broke a track record at two and won the Grade 1 Spinaway.
After that, Banke said, Jess came around to the idea of racing the fillies he purchased — just in time for Rachel.
Now, Banke has plans to broaden Grace Stables, which campaigns one or two fillies a year, to help some of her friends become involved in the sport.
When Banke took over both the wine operation and Stonestreet Farm in 2011, she had no intention to play it safe in either business. In September, Fortune magazine detailed her six-figure investment with land in California because she believes there will soon be a wine shortage in the United States, thanks to growing demand and a reduced availability of undeveloped land in the state. She plans to be on the front end of the issue.
Banke has also moved forward to expand Stonestreet. She purchased the old Vinery training center in Summerfield, Fla., in late 2012 and repurposed the facility for her stable's training and rehabilitation needs. The stable has grown eight-fold since Banke took over and has campaigned graded stakes fillies Dreaming of Julia, My Miss Aurelia, Teen Pauline, and Kauai Katie. The farm is also the number one breeder in Kentucky by yearling sales in 2014.
“I love being number one, so I think we'll try to continue that,” said Banke. “We're trying to be on the high end of the breeding. We're not raising sales horses; we're raising racehorses.”
Banke said she has an interest in developing the type of horse that can run at Royal Ascot, Dubai, and at other top-end race meets in Europe, even if that means waiting out a horse's development and passing on a brilliant juvenile campaign. Besides physical qualities that lend themselves to a Classic-distance racer, Banke likes to see a horse with heart and brains. What else does she look for?
“I like to see a Grade 1 trophy. I like to see a Horse of the Year statuette. I have very high expectations, and I learned those a long time ago with Curlin.”
In addition to raising awareness about female contributions to the sport and industry, our series Women in Racing also serves as a reminder that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As part of the Paulick Report's annual Breeders' Cup or Bust fundraising efforts, please consider a donation to Breeders' Cup Charities. Your contribution can help fund the cure via City of Hope. Thank you!
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