Restaurant owners dream of Derby

When it came to naming their first thoroughbred racehorse, there was only one choice for the owners of Pamplemousse Grille.

“No one makes any money in this (horse racing) industry, so we figured maybe we’d get publicity for the restaurant,” said chef Jeffrey Strauss, who co-owns the restaurant with his brother, Bill.

The Pamplemousse, a towering gray athlete with an unstoppable need for speed, is considered the horse to watch in the Santa Anita Derby on April 4. The field is expected to be small, but tough.

“I’m ready for it,” Strauss said. “I’m going to be watching with my brother, family and friends, praying to celebrate.”

The $750,000 Santa Anita Derby will be the first Grade I stakes race for the 3-year-old, who won the last three of the five races he’s entered, breezing to the finish line several lengths in front of heavy favorites.

And if all goes well, The Pamplemousse is headed for the premiere Kentucky Derby on May 2.

Having a hometown favorite for the Santa Anita Derby, not to mention the Kentucky Derby, is creating quite a buzz locally. When The Pamplemousse won the Grade 3 Sham Stakes on a late February afternoon, the Pamplemousse Grille went from having 87 reservations at 4:30 p.m. to 137 by 6 p.m.

The horse may be the most expensive advertisement they’ve ever purchased, but he’s certainly giving the Strausses more publicity - and excitement - than they ever imagined.

“I’m loving every minute of it,” Strauss said. “I’ve never felt more alive than when this horse is running.”

The wild ride began when Alex Solis II picked the son of Kafwain and Comfort Zone at a sale in March 2008 and partnered with the Strauss brothers, Carol Bienstock and Ann Winner.

The 17-hands-tall colt has a goofy disposition and loves the camera, but is also observant and likes to take in the moment after finishing a run.

He was placed in the talented hands of trainer Julio Canani, who Strauss said has done a flawless job.

“The scariest thing is you own an animal that really has no way to communicate,” Strauss said. “That’s why it’s so important to give it to the right trainer.”

Rounding out the trustworthy and knowledgeable team is Solis’ father, veteran jockey Alex Solis Sr., who is widely expected to be elected into the Hall of Fame.

Growing up in New Jersey, Strauss’ first exposure to racehorses was at his cousin’s broodmare farm.

“Watching my first foal being born, I was hooked then,” he said.

After completing culinary training in France, London and New York, Strauss opened his first restaurant across from the Del Mar racetrack 13 years ago. That’s when he discovered the thrill of thoroughbreds: “Thoroughbred horses are the most beautiful animals in the world.”

In the last 1 ? years, the Strauss brothers started their own stables with seven horses. They designed their own silks in green and black with the Pamplemousse Grille logo only slightly modified - the telltale goose is smoking a cigar, a tribute to their late father.

While Strauss said he knows the road to Churchill Downs could end at any moment, he’s enjoying the dream. He and his brother drive to Pasadena every Wednesday to watch the horse work out, and have a tradition of flying up for race days.

“If you can’t dream in this business, you shouldn’t be in this business,” he said.

Surfside Race Place will be cheering on The Pamplemousse for the Santa Anita Derby on April 4. For more information, go to