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seabiscuit movieFrom Seabiscuit to Maryfield

As Hollywood was putting racing's most famous rags-to-riches story down on celluloid in the Seabiscuit movie, caterer to the stars Nick Mestrandrea made sure that the cast and crew never went hungry. That's how he learned the story of a horse who got turned over to a new trainer, rose from obscurity and went on to compete at the highest levels of the sport. A few years later, Mestrandrea is living a similar tale.

Maryfield Maryfield will start in Friday's inaugural $1 million Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Monmouth Park.

Maryfield may not exactly be another Seabiscuit, but there are some similarities to their stories. She was claimed out of a $50,000 claimer two Januarys ago at Santa Anita by Doug O'Neill and has since become a major stakes winner. So far, the highlight of her career has been a win in the Grade I Ballerina at Saratoga, but she's got an even more important date on her calendar. In just a few days, she will start in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, much to the delight of her co-owner, Nick Mestrandrea.

"The whole thing, it's just been so exciting," Mestrandrea said. "Especially when I came into this knowing nothing about horse racing. Now, we've got a horse running in the Breeders' Cup, running against the big boys."

Seabiscuit video clip


Song: The Race Is On
Artist: Sawyer Brown

When Mestrandrea got a call from a producer asking him to work on the Seabiscuit movie he almost turned down the offer. Because the movie was shot at several racetracks across the country, he wasn't sure whether or not he wanted to traipse from track to track and be away from his family. His job is tough enough as it is. Keeping people fed on a movie set often involves an 18-hour day. But he agreed to take the job, possibly the smartest decision he ever made.

Before he got involved with the Seabiscuit movie, Mestrandrea, 36, knew absolutely nothing about horse racing. He thought Seabiscuit was a Triple Crown winner and had never set foot on the grounds of a racetrack until he worked at Fairplex during the filming of the movie.

Though he's working in the background when it comes to the movie industry, Mestrandrea has a way of getting noticed. Variety once referred to him as "the industry's coolest catering guy," noting his habit of wearing food-related costumes to work. For instance, if chicken is on the menu, he might just show up wearing a chicken suit.

Gary Stevens, the Hall of Fame jockey who played George Woolf in the movie, and jockey Luis Jauregi, a stunt rider in the movie, took a liking to Mestrandrea and introduced him to horse racing. Seeing that they had a willing student on their hands, Stevens and Jauregi suggested that Mestrandrea claim a horse.

"Luis told me that when they turn for home and your horse is moving to the lead, it's unlike any other feeling in the world," Mestrandrea said. "I told him, 'C'mon.' Now, I know exactly what he was talking about."

Mestrandrea put up $5,000 and went in with some buddies on a horse named Court Shenanigans, claiming him with trainer Jeff Mullins for $16,000. For his new owners, Court Shenanigans won first time out of the box, and Mestrandrea was hooked.

There were a few more horses after Court Shenanigans, some of them good, some of them not so good. Along the way, Mestrandrea also made the decision to switch to trainer Doug O'Neill.

It was O'Neill who spotted Maryfield when she was dropped into a claimer at Santa Anita. He called Mestrandrea and suggested he go in with owners Mark Gorman and Jim Perry. Mestrandrea agreed and took a 30 percent share in the mare.

Under O'Neill's care, Maryfield kept getting better and better. She won her first start for her new connections and won a small stakes in her next outing. Now 6, this has been her best year. She won the Grade II Distaff Breeders' Cup Handicap in March at Aqueduct and, two starts later, finished fourth in the Grade I Princess Rooney at Calder.

She was overlooked in her next start, going off at 16-1 in the Ballerina. But she came through, nipping Baroness Thatcher at the wire by a nose. For Mestrandrea, it was his first visit to Saratoga since he worked there on the Seabiscuit movie.

"When we won the Ballerina in Saratoga it was surreal," he said. "I hadn't been there in three years and the last time I was there I was in the grandstand cleaning up after everyone had eaten. Now, I was standing in the winner's circle."

She hasn't run since the Ballerina, but has been training forwardly leading up to the Breeders' Cup. Mestrandrea, who just got done working on the set of Indiana Jones 4, will get a rare day off and come to Monmouth to watch Maryfield run. She's in tough, but, at the very least, she should be competitive. After the Breeders' Cup, she'll be sold at Keeneland's November Breeding Stock Sale.

With the mare being a Grade I winner, Mestrandrea and his partners should reap a windfall profit. It's been a great run. All because of Seabiscuit.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.


Seabiscuit Home: Interest in horse fuels preservation of property

seabiscuit bronze at the ranch A new copy of a bronze statue of Seabiscuit, funded by an English couple, was installed at the ranch in June. The original statue stands at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Randy Pench / Sacramento Bee

The most famous racehorse ever to set foot in California lived amid the golden Mendocino hills

By Debbie Arrington - found at sacbee.com
Published Thursday, October 18, 2007

Somewhere on this sprawling ranch, Seabiscuit rests under an old oak tree.

The most famous racehorse ever to set foot in California, Seabiscuit lived and died here 60 years ago. He's buried in an unmarked location amid the golden Mendocino hills.

But his spirit is still very much alive, drawing thousands of fans from throughout the world to Ridgewood Ranch. In ways that could not have been foreseen by his owners, Seabiscuit is helping to preserve 5,000 acres of open space for generations to come.

It's not about the horse but the land, more than seven square miles nestled next to Highway 101. For the most part, the ranch looks much like it did when Charles Howard, Seabiscuit's owner, bought the place in 1919.

That rarity makes this 155-year-old ranch worth saving, said Tracy Livingston, president of the Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation.

"We've been trying to put a conservation easement on the property since 2000, way ahead of the (Seabiscuit) book, including a 100-year timber management plan," he said. "When the book came out in 2001, that created tremendous interest in saving this ranch. We want to protect it into perpetuity."

Christ's Church of the Golden Rule bought the original 16,000-acre ranch in 1961 and later sold off portions to finance its operation and conservation efforts. As stewards of the land, church members replanted pine forests that had been denuded by lumbering. They nurtured groves of old-growth redwoods and restored the trout streams.

 

A quiet life of preservation

 

Livingston, a longtime church member, has lived on the ranch for 31 years.

"We have a very simple philosophy: We live by the golden rule," Livingston said of the church, which has dwindled to 19 members. "We don't proselytize. We live very simply. We want to preserve this land as our legacy."

In 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Ridgewood Ranch among the top 11 most endangered sites in the nation. The property is threatened by development on all sides.

Neighboring forests have been clear-cut. Massive gravel quarries scrape the hills. Wine grapes cover vast tracts on either side of the highway.

But Ridgewood reflects a simpler time. Still a working cattle ranch with a small herd, the ranch is home to golden eagles, great blue herons, bears and mountain lions. White-tail deer far outnumber cattle.

Its dirt road dates to stagecoach days and looks just about the same as when Charles "Black Bart" Boles robbed Wells Fargo in 1878 near where the mare barn now stands.

Five miles of prime steelhead trout habitat run through the ranch. In an effort to save the fish before they disappear, the chilly streams have been a major focus of recent preservation. Rare vernal pools also dot the property.

 

Seabiscuit inspires action

 

Seabiscuit who retired as the world's richest thoroughbred helps pay for the restoration, not through his earnings but his memory.

"He meant a lot to a lot of people," said Bill Nichols, a Wilton horse breeder who worked on the ranch during Seabiscuit's heyday and now serves on the foundation's board of directors. "(The ranch) gets an awful lot of people there, and not just horse people but people who heard the story of Seabiscuit and want to see it for themselves. It's a special place."

Since the release of Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," Ridgewood Ranch has become a destination again. Based on the book, the Oscar-nominated 2003 movie "Seabiscuit," starring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper, helped rekindle Seabiscuit mania around the globe.

Starting with the stallion barn, 22 original structures on the property are being restored. The red and white barn, which had been used as the church's print shop for decades, now looks almost exactly as it did when Seabiscuit slept there. The Rotary Club of Willits pitched in $10,000 and the labor to complete the project.

"It's perfect," Nichols said. "It was just a shell when they started. They did a great job."

Restoration work has begun on the Howards' home and a 22-stall mare barn, which still bears the names of Seabiscuit's mates written in pencil next to the stall doors. The barn's roof alone cost $70,000 to replace.

"We're just trying to stabilize the buildings and get them in a state of preservation so we can do the full restorations later," Livingston said.

Said Nichols, "They're trying to be accurate and do everything as authentically as possible. It's a lot of work."

 

'Little Biscuits' on property

 

After Seabiscuit retired to the ranch in 1940, more than 7,000 fans made the then-five-hour trek north from San Francisco to see him roll in the dirt outside his stallion barn or casually pose for pictures.

"We've had many more visitors than that since we started doing the tours," Livingston said. "When the book first came out, we had 250 at a time. We still had hundreds of people come out this summer."

Jacqueline Cooper, owner of the American Legend Horse Farm near Willits, is among the many volunteers who help keep Seabiscuit's memory alive. Her current project has brought six direct descendants of Seabiscuit back to Ridgewood. The newest "little Biscuit," a thoroughbred filly named Bronze Sea, was born May 23 Seabiscuit's birthday and greets visitors outside the mare barn.

"We hope to have Bronze Sea race at Santa Anita in 2010, which would be the 70th anniversary of Seabiscuit's (Santa Anita Handicap) win," Cooper said.

Seabiscuit's heirs add a special connection for visitors, she said. "People are very moved by the sight of the horses. Some have tears in their eyes. Seeing the barns and everything else is an attraction, but there's a connection people have with the horses."

Also in the works is a major Seabiscuit commemoration at the ranch next May in honor of the horse's 75th birthday.

 

A variety of access

 

Group tours tailored to specific interests such as horseback riding or wildlife can be scheduled through the foundation's Web site. Docent-led nature walks are held Saturdays during the spring and summer. Seabiscuit-themed tours are held three days a week from May through September. The ranch also hosts a riding program for disabled children.

Longer ranch tours coordinated by the Willits Chamber of Commerce are offered about once a month. Those include screenings of a Seabiscuit documentary featuring rare home movies by Dr. Raymond Babcock, Howard's longtime friend who nursed jockey Red Pollard back to health at the ranch. Among the featured clips are Pollard's wedding in Willits and Seabiscuit modeling for his life-size bronze statue.

A new copy of the bronze by Western artist sculptor Tex Wheeler was installed at the ranch in June, delivered in a restored 1948 Diamond T horse van.

Donated by the Howard family, the original statue which had been at the ranch now stands at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga, N.Y. A duplicate graces the paddock at Arcadia's Santa Anita Park, where Seabiscuit won some of his most memorable races.

Seabiscuit fans Christopher and Anita Lowe of Wilshire, England, paid for the new statue after falling in love with the ranch on their first visit in 2005.

"He just wants to see things really done right," Livingston said of Christopher Lowe. "He donated about $110,000 including the statue, granite base and truck restoration."

Among the 250 Seabiscuit fans who attended the statue dedication were former vice president Walter Mondale and his wife, Joan, and Col. Michael Howard, Charles Howard's great-grandson.

"It's such a privilege to work here, meeting people from all over the world," Cooper said. "The foundation is taking a real good direction of preserving this ranch and Seabiscuit's legacy."

 

If you go ...

 

What: Ridgewood Ranch, home of the legendary racehorse Seabiscuit

Where: 16200 N. Highway 101, seven miles south of Willits, about 150 miles from Sacramento

When: Group tours are available year-round by appointment. Guided nature walks are held weekly through spring and summer. Seabiscuit-themed tours are held three days a week, May through September. Longer tours are held once a month, offered through the Willits Chamber of Commerce (707-459-7910).

How much: Nature walks are free. The Seabiscuit tours are $15 to $25 per person.

Information: (707) 459-5992 or www.seabiscuitheritage.org

 

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