A beautiful bay thoroughbred named Evolutionist is trying to prove he's the boss, jerking his head back repeatedly and yanking the reins of the woman walking him outside his stall. ¶ Jessica Steinbrenner holds on tight, despite the sharp pulls that look powerful enough to dislocate a shoulder. Off to the side, Jim Scott, longtime manager of Kinsman Farms, and trainer Juan Rodriguez wince.
But she speaks calmly to her promising 2-year-old colt and, in moments, he settles down.
"We're more afraid for her than anything," Scott said, smiling, "but she's totally relaxed."
For Steinbrenner, maintaining a tight grip on the picturesque horse farm founded by her father, legendary New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, is a top priority. As general manager at Kinsman, the third of the four Steinbrenner children lives life in constant motion.
Several days a week — in addition to being a busy mother of four teenagers — she shuttles between her Tampa office at Legends Field and Kinsman, nearly two hours north. Her father has pulled back from his hands-on operation of the Yankees and the horse farm, so Steinbrenner, 43, keeps close watch over the farm's array of top thoroughbreds, conferring with her team of experts about every detail relating to breeding, raising and racing — and always reporting back to her dad.
"Jessica is so diligent," Scott says. "She lives, eats and drinks this business. During the foal season, she insists I call her — even at 3 a.m. — just to know if there was a birth. It's just a quick, 'The foal is fine. Good. Talk to you in the morning.' But she wants to know. If I called her dad in the middle of the night, it would be, 'HEY, CALL ME TOMORROW!!' ''
The Boss' daughter says her style is not to yell, but she acknowledges she inherited his trademark toughness. "All of us did," she says, referring to brother Hank, 50, now running the day-to-day operations of the Yankees after focusing for years on the farm's racing business; Jennifer, 48, who runs the New York Yankees Foundation; and Hal, 39, supervising the construction the new Yankee Stadium and working with Hank.
"We're all very strong-minded. But I would never be strong-minded about something I didn't understand."
One thing she understands: horses.
She fell in love with them as a girl here on the family farm, where riding was a way to get the attention of her busy dad.
And now that lifelong passion may allow her to give him a gift that would mean the world.
The Yankees under Steinbrenner have won six world championships, 10 pennants and 15 division titles. Though there's no doubt the aging Boss, 77, would love to see his club win its first World Series since 2000, one pinnacle of sports has eluded him in four decades of trying.
A Kentucky Derby winner.
And Jessica could be the one to deliver that.
"That would an unbelievable satisfaction for me," she says.
He came close to savoring that achievement in 2005, when Bellamy Road, a 5-2 favorite, faded in the stretch run and finished a disappointing seventh.
But this year, a special horse has continued his rise from the gently rolling hills of Ocala. Meet Majestic Warrior. The 3-year-old colt is the son of two-time leading sire A.P. Indy and a grandson of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. Then there's his mother, Dream Supreme, another Steinbrenner thoroughbred who won multiple Grade I races and earned more than $1-million.
With such distinguished lineage, coupled with some impressive 2-year-old performances, it's no wonder that Majestic Warrior is being touted as a Derby contender.
It doesn't hurt that his trainer is Bill Mott, an Eclipse Award winner, trainer of two-time horse of the year Cigar and a member of the thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame.
Majestic Warrior — half-brother of Evolutionist — ran three times as a 2-year-old, winning Aug. 4 at Saratoga, beating well-regarded Ready's Image to take the $250,000 Grade I Hopeful Stakes a month later, but racing poorly in the $400,000 Grade I Champagne Stakes on Oct. 6 at Belmont Park and finishing sixth. He skipped the Breeders' Cup on Oct. 26-27 because of a minor hoof separation.
Two weeks ago, in his 3-year-old debut, Majestic Warrior was forced wide on both turns and finished seventh in the Louisiana Derby, but according to Scott "came away fitter and ready for the next step"— the Florida Derby on Saturday at Gulfstream Park or the Arkansas Derby on April 12 at Oaklawn Park, two more high-profile preps for the Kentucky Derby on May 3.
One thing is certain: The horse has the name of a winner.
"Thank you," Steinbrenner says, smiling. "I do all the naming. That's my other obsession."
It is all part of a nonstop drive that has made her one of the top female executives in the male-dominated horse racing industry — a drive rooted in the pastoral grounds just outside the window of her Kinsman office.
She was born in Ohio and moved to Tampa in fifth grade. But the farm was a constant in her childhood.
It was that way from the time she was a kindergartner and would sneak out of the family's Kinsman house before anybody was awake, before the workmen arrived, and head to the big red barn to visit the riding horses.
She had her own Shetland pony and taught herself to ride. "I just got on him — never had any fear," she says.
Soon, she was riding around on her father's 1973 Illinois Derby winner, Big Whippendeal. "He was a pistol, but my dad let me ride him, unbelievably so because I hadn't had any true training," she says. "But the fact that he would say, 'Boy, you can ride that horse' was enough for me. Because I wanted to impress my dad so badly, like any daughter does."
Her father bought Kinsman in 1969 and though building the Yankees after his Jan. 3, 1973, purchase of the American League team was his priority, the farm was always a passion for him. His parents, Henry George and Rita Steinbrenner, often stayed in their own house on the property. Young Jessica recalls practicing her fence jumping in front of them as they sat in lawn chairs:
"They'd watch me jump over and over, and my grandfather would say, 'Do it again,' and I'd go, 'Again?' and then jump the same two fences 20 times. One time I fell off and caught the horse and went over to take him to my grandparents. My grandfather said, 'What are you waiting for?' I said, 'I just fell off.' And he said, 'Well get back on.' "
It was the Steinbrenner way, passed to her father and then to the children. She carried that, along with her love of horses, through prep school at Culver Girls Academy in Indiana and college at Sweet Briar in Virginia, where many students had horses. She didn't live and die with the fortunes of her father's baseball team, but still enjoyed watching them along the way.
"We always went to Fort Lauderdale for spring training," she says. "I would get pulled from school and we'd go to a little makeshift school for a few hours a day; it was heavenly," she says. "I loved spring training. It's probably my favorite part until the postseason."
After graduating from college, she worked as a TV news production intern then interned for her dad. "I pretty much did anything he told me," she says. "But by then, I was pretty much heading toward marriage."
She married Joe Molloy of Tampa in 1986 and started a family, two boys, two girls, now 19, 18, 15 and 13. Molloy was brought into the Yankee fold, rising from president of the club's Tampa operation to vice president and chief administrative officer of the big-league team.
When the children were young, they and their cousins would often wind up in their grandfather's office at the farm. Jessica Steinbrenner remembers her niece crawling on the floor, followed by her father.
"He would be on his hands and knees crawling around after her. He loves children — and my mom always had to be the disciplinarian. My dad was play time, happy time. He has very much of a soft spot for kids and animals, too."
She and Molloy divorced in 1997 and he left the Yankee franchise. But she stayed busy with the kids, becoming increasingly involved in the operation of the farm, run by Hank. She also had two children's books published, My Sleep Room (2004) and My Messy Room (2006).
For the past three years, she has been married to Felix Lopez. He worked on the construction of Legends Field and now has moved into the Yankee hierarchy as a senior vice president, focusing on Legends ground maintenance.
"We're all very proud of Jessica,'' he says. "She's doing a great job, and she loves the horses and the farm."
When her father began to step back from daily control of the Yankees last year, the siblings stepped forward. Hank's ascension from the farm to the top baseball operational role meant that Jessica would need to take on a greater role in Kinsman. And she has relished every aspect of it. But there is one thing she daydreams about — a gift from a daughter to her dad that has sparked an idea for another book.
"If we win a Kentucky Derby," she says, "I have a perfect story in mind."
Dave Scheiber can be reached
or (727) 893-8541.