BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) – A battered kangaroo leather saddle trimmed in lizard skin that Seabiscuit jockey George Woolf considered his lucky charm is the highlight of an auction of racing memorabilia.

Also up for sale Sunday will be a shoe worn by Seabiscuit and the whip Woolf used to spur him to many victories more than half a century ago.

For years, the items were on display at The Derby restaurant in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia, down the street from Santa Anita, the track where Seabiscuit raced in the 1930s and ’40s.

They’ve taken on new significance with the success of Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book, “Seabiscuit,” and the upcoming movie based on the book, starring Tobey Maguire as Woolf, Jeff Bridges and Oscar winner Chris Cooper. The film opens nationwide on July 25.

“If there was ever a time to put this stuff on auction it would be now,” said Chip Sturniolo, who owns The Derby with his wife, Bonnie. “Everywhere you go now, it’s Seabiscuit.”

More than 370 lots from Sturniolo’s collection are up for sale at the I.M. Chait Gallery in Beverly Hills. The Sturniolos’ restaurant is the West Coast’s unofficial racing museum.

In 1938, Woolf purchased The Derby to have a hangout for his racing friends. After Woolf’s death in 1946, his widow, Genevieve – Bonnie’s aunt – ran the restaurant for five years until Sturniolo’s parents purchased it. They died two years ago, leaving Chip and Bonnie to host the racetrack regulars.

The Sturniolos put the items in storage two years ago when they remodeled The Derby. They have such an extensive collection, they decided to sell items they can’t display.

“We wanted someone to have this stuff,” Sturniolo said. “Everybody got mad at me how I was storing this stuff and I got tired of getting yelled at.”

Woolf, who is in thoroughbred racing’s hall of fame, rode champions of his era such as Seabiscuit and Whirlaway. The only major race he never won was the Kentucky Derby, finishing second twice. He said he might have jinxed himself by naming his restaurant after America’s most famous race.

His saddle, once worn by Australian racehorse Phar Lap, was expected to draw the most intense bidding. After Phar Lap died, his jockey, Billy Elliott, gave it to Woolf, who considered it his lucky saddle and used it on Seabiscuit.

“I got a sneaky feeling it’s going to go back to Australia,” Sturniolo said. “There just seems to be a lot of interest from there.”

Television crews from Australia were at the gallery Monday videotaping the items.

Phar Lap was the Australian version of Seabiscuit. Both horses captured the public’s imagination in their respective countries during the Great Depression. With millions out of work, Phar Lap and Seabiscuit stood out as popular champions and sure bets on which to win money during tough times.

Woolf wasn’t using the lucky saddle when he rode Please Me in the fourth race at Santa Anita on Jan. 3, 1946. Woolf fell off headfirst and died the next day. Also for sale are the cap and white britches he wore in his final race.

Sturniolo had a tough time parting with the saddle and a horseshoe worn by Seabiscuit when he defeated War Admiral at Pimlico Race Course in 1938.

“I grew up with that saddle,” said Sturniolo, who was photographed in it at age 5.

The shoe is now mounted on a sterling silver ashtray.

Other items up for sale include Woolf’s faded red silks and boots and his apprentice riding papers, yellowed and torn at the edges. Under terms of the 1927 contract, it would be another four years before Woolf’s pay rose to $50 a month.

Woolf’s boots were used as a prototype to make 50 pairs for use in the “Seabiscuit” movie.

The lots have no estimated prices, so bidders can establish the ultimate value of the items, said James M. Goodman, who brought the collection to the gallery’s attention.

“We have reserves on a few pieces, not many,” Goodman said. “People who are interested in racing history are going to establish what the piece is worth. I expect them to bring large sums of dollars, but I think there will also be some very good buys here.”

The saddle does have a reserve, although Goodman declined to reveal it.

“I hope this brings racing back to where it should be,” Sturniolo said. “It’s had a couple of hard years. This movie will bring racing back.”



On the Net:

http://www.chait.com/cgi-bin/main.pl

AP-ES-07-15-03 1607EDT



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