vintage photo of The Derby

History Of The Derby

In every era, fans delight to eat in restaurants of great athletes and celebrities. When Woolf purchased The Derby in 1938, he was at the top of his game. Racing had no competition from Super Bowls and television hype. It dominated much public radio interest and many daily newsprint inches. Even movie-house newsreels reported the preparation and conclusion of high stakes and match races. The $100,000 Stakes Race, the Santa Anita Handicap, was the richest prize in racing at the time. All these elements made Woolf a legend, and The Derby was where he could hold court away from the track. Who wouldn't want to be served in the eatery of one of the most recognized athletes of the day?

George Woolf envisioned his Derby Restaurant to be a gathering place for jockeys and race fans. It was planned as a source of retirement earnings that would allow him to reflect back on his hall of fame career. Each wall, adorned with memorabilia of prestigious horses and races, would cause diners to revisit glorious wagers and harrowing photo finishes. This vision has been fulfilled by the Sturniolo Family, who not only serve the food that delights customers, but also preserve the atmosphere made great by its connection to the sport of kings.

1938 was also the same year Seabiscuit became a thoroughbred legend. Imagine 10,000 fans arriving to watch - not a competitive race- but a simple workout. That was the fame of Seabiscuit. When he ran a race, crowds filled the stands and infields, President's cabinet meetings were delayed until radio broadcasts finished and the horse recorded more newspaper type inches than either FDR or Hitler. Horseracing existed before George Woolf and Seabiscuit, and The Derby restaurant has a history that precedes them, as well. Hudson M. Proctor was The Derby's founder.


Named the Proctor Tavern when it operated in 1922, its close proximity to the racetrack attracted horse owners and horse betters alike. In 1931, it moved to its present location, where only through your imagination can you hear the echoes of the day's last race called bounce off the foothills. It was here that George Woolf became co-owner in 1938 with his partner. Bill Peterson. Woolf was a premier rider and accepted only quality mounts. Fate brought him together with Seabiscuit when the scheduled jockey, Red Pollard, was injured. That was to place Woolf on Seabiscuit during a near miss in a photo-finish of the Santa Anita Handicap, and later, in a victorious match race against Triple Crown winner, War Admiral. These illustrious events added to the fame and mystique of both rider and horse. The storied success of its jockey-owner, increased The Derby's popularity.

In 1946, George Woolf was fatally injured when he was thrown from his mount "Please Me" during the running of the fourth race at Santa Anita Race Track on January 3, 1946. It is unclear if his horse stumbled or if he momentarily blacked out. The controversy would be debated, but it was clear a racing great was lost. Bronze statues of George Woolf and Seabiscuit remain at Santa Anita today, silently observing the atmosphere they helped to establish. Some believe that the spirit of George Woolf watches over the restaurant he helped to establish, as well.

Interested in reading even more about the history of The Derby? Download an excellent article written by William E. Mutschler. (PDF)

vintage photos

World Famous Since 1922

Some of The Derby's great mementoes provoke intermingled memories of Woolf, Santa Anita, Seabiscuit and the Premier Stakes Races that made them great. As you enjoy The Derby's delightful ambiance you may picture yourself astride a horse in the starting gate viewing the field of appetizers and entrees. The Derby maintains its ties to the track all the way to the titles of its menu items. Like George Woolf you need to remain calm and not make too quick a selection. Woolf earned the reputation as the "iceman," a jockey able to carefully select the right moment to make his move, giving him the greatest advantage. You may want to let other members of your party select their dinners first, and only then calculate an order from one of the featured items. But The Derby's ultimate appeal is not in the imaginative setting but the pride of selection, food preparation and great service.

The great Seabiscuit was known for taunting other horses. He would allow them to run alongside, pacing himself until they had run themselves out and then simply pull away. The Derby is much like that. Allowing other steakhouses to flaunt themselves with braggadocios advertising, it quietly runs alongside knowing that its strength will show in the run toward the wire. Patrons may sample the fare elsewhere, but when it comes to placing their bets on the best dining in the San Gabriel Valley, they often return to The Derby.

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