Bon Appetit!

By Morton Cathro
Would you like a steak? Or a hamburger or bowl of chili, perhaps? For dessert we suggest a banana split, strawberry waffles, a slice of cherry pie, or donuts...and would you like a cold beer with that?

A rather rich repast, calculated to give one pause (if not heartburn) in these diet-conscious times. But if you'll pardon a bit of a stretch, such is a sample "menu" served up for the better part of a century by prominent California Thoroughbred owners and breeders, past and present, with ties to food and beverage empires in the state.

And now, like a barefoot vineyard worker stomping on grapes at the fall harvest, Jess Stonestreet Jackson Jr., the Sonoma County wine mogul, has jumped with both feet into breeding and racing.

As you've doubtless heard, Jackson is slaking his thirst for the Sport of Kings by sinking a barrel of money from his vast Kendall-Jackson holdings into Bluegrass farms, expensive broodmares (including the dam of Afleet Alex), racing stock, and high-end stallions. And thus does he help assure the continuation of a trend begun long ago by breeder Adolph B. Spreckels, the sugar tycoon, who dispatched undefeated Morvich from neighboring Napa Valley to Kentucky to win the Derby in 1922.

Not long after Morvich, wealthy Californians such as W.W. Crenshaw, "The Banana Man"; Elwood B. Johnston, "The Pie Man"; and W.W. "Tiny" Naylor, "The Waffle Man," were investing their hard-earned dough in classy Thoroughbreds and cooking up winning recipes at their Southern California breeding farms.

* Crenshaw traveled west to California from Virginia, then headed south to Guatemala and Panama, where as top banana for the United Fruit Co. in 1930, he cornered the market, importing four-million stems of the golden fruit to the Golden State. In racing, the Banana Man's powerful stable included a filly named, appropriately, Anita Chiquita. But his best runner was Zaca Rosa, who, after thrashing the opposition at home, peeled off for the East, where she beat eventual champion Vagrancy in the 1942 Acorn Stakes.

* Johnston, a baker who made a fortune selling pies to restaurants, bought English Harry in 1939 and raced him to two track records that stand to this day at Santa Anita. And that was just the beginning of one of the state's most successful and enduring operations, Old English Rancho.

* Tiny Naylor opened his first Tiny's Waffle Shop in 1926 in Northern California. By 1946 there were 32 in the state, and two years later he established the first in another chain of diners, named for his son, Biff.

Along the way Naylor founded the Beverly Hills Club, opened a restaurant in that community in partnership with jockey Eddie Arcaro, bought a piece of the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, and jumped big-time into horse racing. Tragically, his Please Me was the horse from which legendary jockey (and fellow restaurateur) George "the Ice Man" Woolf fell at Santa Anita and died the following morning. While signing the ticket for a broodmare he'd just purchased at auction, Naylor himself collapsed and died.

* The last half of the century saw the late entrepreneurs Clement L. Hirsch, Verne Winchell, and John C. Mabee dominate the scene. Hirsch (Stagg's Chili) held a hot hand with Figonero, June Darling, Magical Maiden, and others. Winchell ("The Donut King") bred more than 70 stakes winners with profits from his chain of donut shops and Denny's restaurants. Mabee (Big Bear Supermarkets) stocked the shelves at Golden Eagle Farm with a record three Eclipse Awards, plus trophies won by Best Pal, the "people's horse," and countless other stars.

Which brings us to today's prominent owner/breeders charged, along with Jackson, with satisfying our hunger and thirst for more: John C. Harris, cattle baron (Harris Ranch Beef) and chairman of the California Horse Racing Board; potential racetrack owner Mike Pegram (McDonald's franchises); and Bob and Beverly Lewis, the successful couple who, as beer distributors, rode to fame and fortune in the cab of a Budweiser big-rig.

Cheers, everyone, and bon appetit!