Jackson Tribute: He Liked to See His Horses Run

by | 04.21.2011 | 10:49am

Jess Jackson will be remembered as an American original in his native California, in the wine industry in which he became so successful, and in the Thoroughbred industry that was a major part of his life these last few years, when he campaigned 2007-08 Horse of the Year Curlin and 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra.

We learned of Mr. Jackson's death this morning from cancer. He had battled the disease with the same toughness he showed in business and in racing. Sadly, this is one fight that even the most rugged of individuals can't conquer.

I got to know Jess Jackson during his long, sometimes bitter litigation battles involving his bloodstock purchases. He felt he was wronged by some people he entrusted to purchase horses for him, and for a time made it a personal crusade to bring more transparency and disclosure to the business of buying and selling horses.

He brought that fight, not just to courtrooms, but to Frankfort, Ky., where he testified in front of a legislative committee to encourage passage of a bill to protect horse buyers like him from unscrupulous activity in the public and private sale of bloodstock in Kentucky. The law, which prohibited undisclosed dual agency, passed in 2006, and while it was a watered-down version of what Mr. Jackson originally sought, it does offer horse buyers some protection from being fleeced.

He could be difficult at times, an understatement that would probably bring a chuckle to those who knew him best. Impossible is probably a better word. Sometime last year when I inquired about his health to an associate at Kendall-Jackson, the company Mr. Jackson built into a winemaking empire, I was told that he was back in his office “raising hell” with his management team. “That's a good sign that he's feeling like his old self,” I was told.

Jess Jackson had opinions, and it's my observation that once they were formed, there was little to no wiggle room for an alteration.

One example. He blamed Curlin's 2008 defeat in the Breeders' Cup Classic on the Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita. “Plastic,” he called it, a nickname that caught on with all synthetic-track bashers. Mr. Jackson conveniently overlooked the fact that Curlin struggled to beat a weak field in his final two preps leading up to the Breeders' Cup. They were horses he would have soundly thrashed earlier in his career, prior to Curlin's victorious trip to the Dubai World Cup.

Mr. Jackson didn't let public criticism deter him.  He bought Rachel Alexandra privately after she annihilated the field in the 2009 Kentucky Oaks, and turned her over to Curlin's trainer, Steve Asmussen. Fans of her previous trainer, Hal Wiggins, were appalled. But Mr. Jackson won many of them over when he put her through one of the most ambitious campaigns any 3-year-old filly had ever had, winning the Preakness Stakes, the Haskell and the Woodward against colts (the latter race against older males).

He rejected a meeting against Zenyatta in the 2009 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita, blaming the “plastic” track once again, though many believe Rachel was a “spent” filly by then, a theory that gained credence when she failed to find her best form the following year.

He liked to be in control of things and loved the spotlight, issuing press releases and holding teleconferences and giving rambling speeches when accepting Eclipse Awards for his horses. But more than anything else, he liked to see his horses run. He kept Curlin and Rachel Alexandra in training as 4-year-olds when conventional wisdom would have said to retire them to the breeding shed a year earlier.

After all the tough talk, the litigation, the posturing, and the bluster, that's what I'll remember the most. He liked to see his horses run.

That's a pretty good legacy.

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