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Bill Strauss arrived for his staff meeting Monday morning to find a mint julep stationed at his seat.

Independently, Strauss’ brother Jeff received a gift basket containing the same cocktail’s key components: bourbon and mint.

This was neither a coincidence nor a conspiracy, but sure symptoms that Kentucky Derby Fever has again infiltrated San Diego County.

The Strauss brothers own 20 percent of The Pamplemousse, a 3-year-old colt on an accelerating collision course with America’s most renowned horse race. Because the brothers are relative rookies as thoroughbred investors, and because The Pamplemousse was one of 34,712 registered foals in the United States in 2006, the odds against this happening conjures a photo finish between Ridiculous and Preposterous.

Yet here it is and here they are – a pair of transplanted New Yorkers on a jubilant joy ride, living the outlandish dream of horsemen worldwide.

“Dreaming is the best part of it,” Jeff Strauss said. “People say “ ‘Don’t jinx your horse.’ But what the hell, most of the fun is talking about it, what may become of this.”

What Jeff Strauss once rationalized as a marketing vehicle for his Pamplemousse Grille has become a bona-fide Derby favorite. Fresh from his third straight victory, an emphatic six-length triumph in Saturday’s Sham Stakes at Santa Anita, The Pamplemousse improved from 20-1 to 10-1 in the Daily Racing Form’s Derby Watch.

Only two horses are assigned shorter odds: Old Fashioned at 5-1 and Pioneerof the Nile at 8-1. Selected by bloodstock agent Alex Solis Jr. and ridden by jockey Alex Solis Sr., The Pamplemousse is scheduled to run his last Derby prep on April 4 in the Santa Anita Derby.

Barring injury, it will then be mint juleps on the menu.

“The other ones when they win, it’s the adrenaline for that race, and you’re just excited for that race,” Bill Strauss said. “With this one, it’s the hope and the potential and the possibility that you’re watching. It’s a completely different feeling. . . .

“Of all the horses, I’ve seen, he has as good a shot at any. The good news is he’s getting better every race and he’s happy, he’s feeling great. He wants to run. I would not trade him for any other horse running right now.”

When asked about his horse’s Derby prospects, Jeff Strauss admitted that he was already “thinking about all three of them,” meaning Triple Crown legs. If that statement seems slightly audacious, why bother living the dream if you’re not going to live it large?

Clearly, the Strauss brothers do not recoil from risk. Bill Strauss, 50, says he had “zero” knowledge of the flower business when he started ProFlowers.com, but trusted his direct marketing expertise to build a powerful Internet brand. Jeff Strauss, 47, opened a high-end French restaurant across the street from the Del Mar backstretch, fully aware that the track’s annual meet spans just seven weeks.

Both brothers are gamblers. Neither is in need of a bailout.

“He’s Mister Midas,” Bill Strauss said of his sibling, the star chef. “Everything he touches turns to gold. If you ever want to do something and you’re not sure it will be successful, get him as your partner and it’s a home run.”

The brothers were first drawn to the track by the lure of legalized gambling, and made their first trek to the winner’s circle 30 years ago, as they remember, in Delaware. But though they have hosted an annual benefit for disabled jockeys, they were basically racetrack dabblers until 2007, when they took a minority stake in four horses during the Keeneland Fall Sale. They added four more horses to their shared stable the following spring in Florida, including the gray colt that would become The Pamplemousse.

Pamplemousse is French for “grapefruit,” a translation that was initially lost on Jeff Strauss during an apprenticeship at Le Moulin de Mougins in the south of France. The word ultimately lodged in Strauss’lexicon through the sustained screaming of chef Serge Chollet.

Strauss’ apprenticeship was unpaid, but his piece of The Pamplemousse has proved to be enormously profitable. Purchased for a total price of $150,000, The Pamplemousse has already earned $209,280 in five career starts. The Strauss brothers’ original $30,000 investment might soon be worth millions should some Sheikh decide to try to buy the Derby.

“There are always offers coming in,” Bill Strauss said. “But this is the dream. This is what you do it for. As Jeff says, after this horse retires, we might never own another horse because the odds of us being in March with another Derby contender are slim to none.”

Jeff Strauss also said a mint julep might be improved by adding grapefruit. Or, if you prefer, “Pamplemousse.”

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Tim Sullivan: (619) 293-1033; tim.sullivan@uniontrib.com

Tim Sullivan: (619) 293-1033; (Contact)

Comments

One Response to “Derby dreams gallop in horse-owning brothers’ heads–by Tim Sullivan, Union-Tribune Columnist”

  1. Mr. Capone-E on August 30th, 2009 5:16 pm

    How long have you been blogging…your good at it.

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