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The Iceman Cometh, or at least his ghost does, on nights when The Derby restaurant in Arcadia, Calif., is filled with patrons rehashing the day's card at nearby Santa Anita Park. Some believe The Derby is haunted by the spirit of George Woolf, a jockey known as the Iceman for the way he sat chillily on a horse until the very last moments of a race.
Woolf bought the little restaurant on Huntington Drive in 1938, renamed it in honor of the Kentucky Derby and festooned its walls with racing memorabilia, much of it pertaining to the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. The Derby has been popular with Santa Anita regulars for almost 60 years; it will be packed nightly in the weeks before the 10th annual Breeders' Cup, which will be held at the racetrack on Saturday, Nov. 6.
The restaurant's current owner, Chip Sturniolo, 42, is among those who are convinced his establishment is haunted. "I swear George Woolf's ghost lives here," he says. " Woolf lived above the restaurant, you know. Sometimes, looking through old scrapbooks or walking around, you can almost feel him there with you."
Perhaps the ghost likes to admire the Calumet Farm silks the 36-year-old Woolf was wearing on Jan. 3, 1946, the day he suffered fatal injuries when Please Me threw him at Santa Anita. Possibly he inspects the saddle Woolf was given in 1932 by Billie Elliot, the jockey of Phar Lap, the great New Zealand champion whose career—and mysterious death—was the subject of a 1983 movie. Or maybe he looks wistfully at the photos of Kentucky Derby winners. Could the gentle breeze that works its way through the restaurant be a ghostly sigh over the fact that Woolf never won the Derby in nine tries from 1932 to 1945?
To this day Santa Anita honors Woolf's memory by presenting an annual award in his name to a jockey who exemplifies the talent, honesty and sportsmanship that made the Iceman among the most respected riders of his day.
So selective that he would seldom accept more than 200 mounts a year, Woolf rode such champions as Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Kayak II, Pavot, By Jimminy and Challedon. He twice led the nation in stakes victories, in 1942 (23) and '44 (14). His triumphs included the 1936 Preakness (Bold Venture), the 1938 Hollywood Gold Cup (Seabiscuit) and the 1942 Jockey Club Gold Cup (Whirlaway).
His best Kentucky Derby finishes, though, were a couple of seconds—on Staretor, who finished eight lengths behind Whirlaway in 1941, and Broadcloth, runner-up by 4� lengths to Pensive in 1944. As time passed and Woolf continued to come up short in the Derby, he told friends, "I guess I jinxed myself when I named my place The Derby. Maybe I'll have to settle for a Derby in Arcadia instead of one in Louisville." Indeed, he won the 1945 Santa Anita Derby—a major Kentucky Derby prep—aboard Bymeabond but got off that colt to ride Sea Swallow in Louisville. Alas, Sea Swallow finished seventh, just behind Bymeabond and 18 lengths behind the victorious Hoop, Jr.
In 1952, Sturniolo's parents, known around Santa Anita as Slugger and Murph, bought The Derby from Woolf's widow, Genevieve, who also let them have the scrapbooks she had kept of her late husband's exploits. In addition she gave them such treasures as the silks Woolf was wearing when he was killed, some of the whips he used in his greatest races, and Phar Lap's saddle. All these are on display in the restaurant's trophy cases, along with such items as the whip the great jockey Earl Sande used in four Kentucky Derby rides in the '20s, a huge panoramic photo of Derby Day in '38, Woolf's bronzed golf shoes and photos of every Derby winner since Aristides in 1875.
On certain nights, when the restaurant is overcrowded, Sturniolo will allow special racetrack guests to dine in the upstairs rooms where Woolf once lived. Many of those diners probably know little about the Iceman. But they might be intrigued to learn that both times Woolf finished second in the Derby, the race he wanted most to win, he was beaten by a horse from Calumet, the farm whose silks he was wearing during the fatal accident.
Anybody feel a chill?