Shrine to Seabiscuit

The Derby restaurant in Arcadia is something of a shrine to horseracing in general—and Seabiscuit in particular. (Robert Gauthier / LAT / July 10, 2003)

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.