'Seabiscuit' May Put Restaurant in the Money

'Seabiscuit' May Put Restaurant in the Money
The Derby restaurant in Arcadia is something of a shrine to horseracing in general—and Seabiscuit in particular. (Robert Gauthier / LAT)
It's a steakhouse that celebrates horseflesh.

And 65 years after a horse named Seabiscuit sent people racing to the Derby, a movie called "Seabiscuit" seems poised to do the same thing again.

The venerable Arcadia restaurant was opened in 1938 by jockey George Woolf. It was the year he rode Seabiscuit to a Pimlico match-race victory over War Admiral in what many consider the greatest horserace in history.

On July 25, a film depicting the drama that led to that race and the emotion that it triggered nationwide will be released across the country.

Woolf owned and operated the Derby until his death in 1946 in a track accident at nearby Santa Anita. Over the past half-century, the restaurant has become something of a shrine to horseracing in general — and Seabiscuit in particular.

Reverential oil paintings of Seabiscuit hang from its walls. A main dining room lined with varnished, wood-mounted montages of photographs depicting the hard-charging horse on the track is called the Seabiscuit Room.

A portrait of Woolf is mounted above the fireplace in the bar. Patrons claim his eyes follow them, wherever they are.

"The restaurant is supposedly haunted by George Woolf. Certain things happen in here after 2 a.m. Pictures move, lights go out — strange stuff. But he's not a bad ghost. A happy ghost he is," said jockey Gary Stevens, who has considered the Derby one of his own favorite haunts for more than two decades.

He was there Monday night, reminiscing about how amazed he was when he visited the restaurant with his mother in 1980 when he was an apprentice jockey.

Stevens, 40, lives in Sierra Madre and has ridden to three Kentucky Derby victories and won the Belmont Stakes twice. He portrays Woolf on the screen in "Seabiscuit."

And Stevens predicts that the movie — which stars Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper — will give horseracing a much-needed boost.

Over on the other side of the restaurant, Jockey Hall of Famer Chris McCarron was relaxing with his wife, Judy, and friends. McCarron retired as a jockey a year ago and now is general manager of Santa Anita. He agreed with Stevens.

"It will not only give us a kick in the pants, but a shot in the arm as well. It's going to get two parts of the body at the same time," he said. "It's the story of a hero of a horse that brought the country out of the doldrums of the 1930s."

Judy McCarron is president of the Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund, which is co-sponsoring an early premiere of "Seabiscuit" as a $150-per-ticket fund-raiser. It will be screened July 20 at the Krikorian Monrovia Cinema — following cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at the Derby.

The suppertime crowd Monday was more of a backstretch group. Two tables away from the McCarrons was trainer Leonard Dorfman, 81, of La Verne. He remembers watching Seabiscuit in the flesh.

"When I started on the race track in 1937, we were stabled near Seabiscuit. I was in awe of that horse. I just thought he walked on water. I've never changed my opinion that the day that Stagehand beat him by a nose in the Santa Anita Handicap in 1938 was the best race I've ever seen a horse run. And I'm not alone," Dorfman said.

Across the room, beneath the portrait of the stern-eyed Woolf, track veteran Jack Van Berg was dining after stopping off on his way back to Los Angeles from a visit to his high desert ranch. His pickup truck, loaded with bales of hay, was parked outside.

"For many years, this was the place to come if you wanted to see somebody or meet them. It still happens. It's packed on race days," said Van Berg, 67.

Restaurant owner Charles "Chip" Sturinolo, 52, grew up in the Derby. His parents bought the place in 1951 from Woolf's widow. They also acquired Woolf's racing memorabilia.

The restaurant, at 233 E. Huntington Drive — or "about seven furlongs from Santa Anita," as Sturinolo puts it — was Proctor's Chicken House before Woolf bought it as his retirement nest egg.

But he died in early January 1946 when the horse he had agreed to ride at the last moment, Please Me, stumbled at Santa Anita's clubhouse turn. Woolf was pitched over the horse and landed heavily on his head. He suffered a skull fracture and never regained consciousness.

Author Laura Hillenbrand, whose 2001 bestseller "Seabiscuit" is the basis for the upcoming movie, recounts in her book that 1,500 people attended Woolf's funeral. Cowboy actor Gene Autry sang "Empty Saddles in the Old Corral."

Later, it was learned that Woolf had failed to use his "lucky" saddle, made of Australian kangaroo, on his fatal ride. It was believed to be the only time in his career that he had not used it.

Sturinolo is sensible, if not sentimental. He plans to auction some of Woolf's possessions — including the saddle — the day of the charity movie premiere.

"The real turf people know the history of George Woolf and Seabiscuit. Now we're getting new people interested in racing," he said as he walked through the restaurant Monday and pointed out the memorabilia he'll keep.

"This is Seabiscuit with his little biscuits. This is at Ridgewood Ranch, where Seabiscuit is buried, up near Willits [Calif.]." None of the offspring succeeded on the track, he said, gazing at a huge dining room photograph of the horse family.

The Derby has been remodeled and doubled in size since Woolf's day. When his parents took it over five years after the jockey's death, Sturinolo said, it was in rough shape. And patronized by a rough crowd.

"The front door used to be glass. Someone threw my dad through the glass door, and my dad walked back in through the glass and picked up the guy and physically threw him out. It took about a year to clean the restaurant out."

A display case near the main door is full of racing and restaurant history. Original menus list shrimp cocktails for 15 cents and a filet dinner for $1.95.

"Here's the first dollar George Woolf brought in back in '38. There's the invitation when they opened the Derby. This is a scrapbook: If you were to open it up, you have Victor Mature in there, Bob Hope, Dean Martin — all those old-timers who went to the racetrack all the time."

A pair of Woolf's jockey boots also is on display.

"They're probably a 5 or a 5 1/2. He was pretty large for a jockey," Sturinolo said.

Moviemakers spent several months at the Derby researching horseracing. Sturinolo lent Woolf's original jockey silks and boots to costume makers.

"It was completely invaluable. He even let us come over and dig through boxes and scrapbooks," said Judianna Makovsky, costume designer for "Seabiscuit."

"In racing museums, they save the shirts and hats but not what's underneath. Nobody had the britches or shoes. People just didn't save it. We were thrilled to find the Derby. It brought to mind that George Woolf was a real man, not just a character in a story."

And Seabiscuit was a real racehorse.