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Barbara Banke is hoping on Saturday that her horse Carpe Diem will live up to its Latin name and make some horse racing history by seizing the day — or at least about two minutes of it.

The 3-year-old colt is the third choice currently in the Kentucky Derby field with odds at 8-1. But he comes to Churchill Downs on a hot streak, winning four of his five races, including the Blue Grass Stakes, a key prep race prior to the Derby.

“He’s definitely ready to go,” Banke said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “His exercise rider has had a hard time keeping him from trying to race every morning. He’s ready to roll.”

If Carpe Diem can pull off a victory, it will build on the incredible accomplishment of Stonestreet Farms, which was founded a decade ago by Banke’s late husband, Jess Jackson, the same man who also founded the iconic Jackson Family Wines that helped put Sonoma County on the map as a premier wine region that could rival Napa.

It is well known in Wine Country that since Jackson’s death in 2011, Banke has helped continue the growth of Jackson Family Wines as one of the nation’s top vintners with a specialty focus in premium and luxury wines, whether by strategically buying prime real estate in Oregon for its high-quality pinot noirs or making targeted acquisitions, such as its purchase last year of the well-regarded Santa Rosa- based Siduri Wines.

But the 61-year-old Geyserville resident is better known in the Bluegrass State for continuing on the tradition of Lexington-based Stonestreet Farms, which initially started as a hobby for Jackson but quickly turned into a full-time business as he pumped more than $200 million into operations. Banke has increased the size of the stable eight-fold and established a training and rehabilitation center in Florida.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” Banke said of Stonestreet Farms’ accomplishments. “Last year, we were the No. 1 breeder in terms of horses sold. ... We have had a lot of success and lot of people have had a lot of success with our horses.”

Derby has remained elusive

Its successes include Curlin, which won the 2007 Preakness Stakes, the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic and the 2008 Dubai World Cup, and her beloved Rachel Alexandra, who in 2009 became the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years and was also named Horse of the Year.

However, the country’s most famous horse race has remained elusive, and Carpe Diem, which is the son of Giant’s Causeway, a former European Horse of the Year, presents a tremendous opportunity to finally get into the winner’s circle and hear the cheers of the more than 150,000 attendees, many decked out in colorful hats with mint juleps in hand.

Banke noted that Carpe Diem has been more battle-tested than her other notable horse that competed in the Run for the Roses. Curlin had only had three races before he ran and had not raced as a 2-year-old, falling to the “Curse of Apollo,” named after the last horse to win the Derby without racing at age 2. That occurred in 1882.

“He (Carpe Diem) has run into trouble before in races and managed to come through it OK,” Banke said.

The horse received a poor post position in the draw Wednesday night in the 20-horse field, receiving the No. 2 spot. The main gate is 14 horses wide and the auxiliary gate hosts the last six positions, resulting in an equestrian traffic jam at a blistering pace of about 35 mph as the field heads into the first turn.

“You have to get out quickly or a lot of horses are going to be coming over on top of you trying to get to that first turn,” she said.

Quality field

Congestion will be a main concern in the Derby, which has drawn a quality field this year including favorite American Pharoah (5-2) and Dortmund (3-1), both trained by the legendary Bob Baffert. Another Stonestreet horse, Stanford, was scratched on Thursday, its owners preferring to run him at later date in a less high-profile race.

In his only loss in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 1, Carpe Diem came in second after running into traffic. Some commentators have noted that Carpe Diem in his victories has run slower than the expected pace for Saturday’s race, but Banke remains nonplussed.

“It’s different tracks, I think. Some of the tracks run a little faster than the (previous two) Tampa Racetrack or Keeneland. It’s not really a concern,” Banke said. “There are some very good horses in the race. He’s one of them.”

While different in personality than the gregarious and at-times combative Jackson, Banke has shown the same willingness as her late husband to compete both in wine and in thoroughbred racing — at a hands-on level.

“I’m not a passive owner,” she said of Stonestreet. “I’m pretty active.”

Involved in breeding, sales

She is involved in the plans for Stonestreet’s breeding program and attends sales, including for the yearlings that are held in September and the 2-year-olds that are held early in the year, while balancing her time as chairman and proprietor of Jackson Family Wines.

She also has continued on Jackson’s tradition of trying to reform the sport of kings, where he successfully fought for increased transparency in the sale of horses after being a victim of kickback schemes.

“Jess did a lot for the sport in terms of transparency in the auction arena, so that people come in knowing everything about the horse,” Banke said. “I think that has been a big improvement over time.”

Banke also has garnered respect from her peers, some of same crowd that was suspicious of Jackson when he first shook up the industry with a mixture of bravado, moxie and the financial resources to back it up. She serves on the boards of the Breeders’ Cup and the National Racing Museum Hall of Fame. She is pushing for uniform medication rules in thoroughbred racing, as different states have different standards, and possibly a new agency to improve the quality of testing. “That is something that needs to be done,” she said. “That is proceeding.”

Both wine and horses involve tremendous risk, whether a bad harvest due to the weather or a horse that doesn’t live up to its expectations or is tragically injured. But the thoroughbred industry has a tradition of greater risk sharing through co-ownership, with Stonestreet having partners for both Curlin and Rachel Alexandra. Banke noted Jackson sold a 10 percent stake of Rachel Alexandra to a friend who never owned a racehorse before, Hal McCormick, because he said, “You might as well start at the top.”

Carpe Diem is co-owned by WinStar Farm, a financially prudent decision given his sale price was $1.6 million, a deal that came after both stables expressed interest in the horse at auction. “That’s a very expensive price to pay ... and that’s another reason to get a partner,” Banke said. “We thought with his breeding and his speed that he was a good bet. But you never know. Sometimes it does not work out.”

Earned purchase price

That bet has panned out as Carpe Diem has roughly earned his purchase price in winnings as he heads into the first leg of the Triple Crown and should have a good future as a stud.

But you will not catch Banke, a self-confessed $2 better, placing a wager on Carpe Diem on Saturday, one of her superstitions in a sport known for many of them. “I never bet on my own horses,” she said. “Every time I do it does not seem to be good.”

At most, Banke said, she may place a table bet with some her friends.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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