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.

  • Barbara

    Very sad to see this news today, even if it was somewhat expected to come soon. I admired the man for his substance even if his style could grate once in a while. It seems as though Barbara Banke plans to continue the stable, so that’s a good thing. May Jess Jackson rest in the peace of knowing he did make a difference.

  • MyBigRed

    I THANK Mr. Jackson for the exciting years he brought to horseracing. I loved watching Curlin and Rachel race!! God Bless Mr. Jackson and his Family.

  • knowitall

    He did like to watch ’em run,in fact I bet if Steve Assmussen talked up Astrology’s Derby chances he’d have stuck around for the race.

  • Ray-
    Excellent accurate description of the many facets of Mr.Jackson.

  • Kelso

    Great article Ray and RIP JJ…

    However, George bolton has proven to be a classless guy with his comments today;

    “He bought his partners out [to race] Curlin at four. He threw [three-year-old filly] Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness [Stakes (G1)], the Haskell [Invitational Stakes (G1)], and the Woodward [Stakes (G1) against older males]. He did things that most owners would never dream of doing. You look at Zenyatta’s schedule compared to Rachel’s? Now that is a sportsman.>”

    Sorry, George but Jerry and Ann Moss are the personification of sportsmen. Remember the Apple Blossom when they went hunting for RA?

    Again RIP JJ, and go suck an egg George Bolton!

  • “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.”

    That’s a very nice way of saying that trainers and bloodstock agents STOLE money from Mr. Jackson.

  • Barbara

    Vandermaalen, you are just a malicious idiot – who wouldn’t know enough to be ashamed – and I hope Ray/Brad deletes your bitter “tribute.” You are as classless as they come.

  • Ray Paulick

    M Vanbermaalen…

    The world is populated with bitter people, but I doubt anyone would top you at this moment for your insensitive comments.

  • Jerry Jam

    M. Vandermaalen:

    Your comments must be coming from the “good old boys” who hated Jess because they were jealous and incapable of listening or understanding his message.

    I can assure you that the “good old boys” will get theirs and your comments might be accurate in some regards but trying to change a system “based on cheating and stealing” is very difficult to fight without getting alittle aggressive and/or litigious!!

    Jess brought transparency and his vision should have been considered further and followed in many situations, especially in CA!!!

    Jerry Jam

  • SixteenK Claimer

    R I P Mr Jackson

  • mousse

    The man died a horrible death from this awful disease so I see no reason to bash him for his earthly actions and I thank this site for removing those tasteless comments.
    No matter what your opinion of the campaigns of Curlin or Rachel they certainly brought excitement and drama to the sport. A sport that he truly loved and enjoyed. That should be his legacy.

  • It’s not hard for one from the depths of the horse racing insiders to dislike Jess Jackson. However, it’s not hard for one to like him as well. I was born with neither the right last name, nor a “pot” full of money that I was willing to lose; as I was told some years ago that I would need to have in order to get into the horse racing business. Yet despite having either of these entrance tickets Jess Jackson allowed me to interview him for my little known blog. It wasn’t for publicity – cause he certainly didn’t get much from me. It was for the love of the sport, it was because despite the truck loads of money he had, he still saw the little guy as someone who had something to say. The sport needs men like Jess Jackson if for no other reason than to put an occasional foot up the establishment’s collective rear end.

  • SixteenK Claimer

    WELL said Kelso !!
    About time somebody said the facts about that silver spoon hoity toity Bolton. He is a phony and only has nice things written about him because he is wealthy.
    ALL that is wrong with Horse racing today.
    Thank you Kelso

  • SixteenK Claimer

    By the way….fantastic article Ray. I was a fan of Mr Jackson. He will be missed.

  • Barbara

    George Bolton has “nice things” written about him because he is smart, funny, accessible, and sensible.

    What is most wrong with the sport today is it seems to me that too many of the few fans left are quite negative and bitter.

  • Marcela

    R.I.P Jess Jackson.
    Great posting

  • Kelso

    Not negative, Barbara… Just keeping it real after his classless comments re the Mosses and Zenyatta.

    It was the wrong forum and venue for such unsportsmanlike commentary.

    “You look at Zenyatta’s schedule compared to Rachel’s? Now that is a sportsman.>”

    RIP JJ.

  • Ray, I respectfully disagree with your statement that Mr. Jackson “conveniently overlooked the fact that Curlin struggled to be a weak field”… While it is true that the competition he faced was weaker than previous campaigns, one must keep in mind that he was a clean horse that had traveled half way around the world and back facing juiced horses. That said the Pro-Ride surface is simply put not dirt. Much like Zenyatta who at last year’s Breeders Cup did not run as she would have on her preferred surface; Curlin’s vaunted kick in the far turn came to no avail on the sticky plastic surface. How else could Tiago (who I personally like greatly, and saw break his maiden when Spanky Go Home chased a shadow) get around the big red horse?

  • Patience Pays

    What in many ways is saddest is that he didn’t make it to see the foal from Curlin and Rachel.

  • A3S

    Mr. Jackson was iconic and larger than life. From my perspective, even though I didn’t know him all that well, I admired him enormously for the man he made himself to be and his commitment to great horses and great wine. My husband and I will be raising a toast to him tonight with glasses of his Vinter’s Reserve…and staring at a picture of me with the Golden Eclipse Award he let me hold a couple years ago in Miami. He was so gracious and a good sport.

  • SixteenK Claimer

    To Barbara:
    You are wrong..but we are all entitled to an opinion.

  • Burling

    Condolences to the Jackson family. I loved watching Curlin and Rachel run.. Thanks Jess for trying to make a postive differnce to the horseracing industry.

  • hip703

    RIP, Jess Jackson

    Re: Curlin. As Jim Squires pointed out in his book Headless Horsemen, one of the reasons Curlin failed to fire in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic is that he had recently been taken off steroids. That is perhaps one of the largest under-reported stories in the annals of horse racing “journalism,” right up there with the turf media’s current reluctance to confront Todd Pletcher regarding whether Uncle Mo had surgery in wake of the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

    Right on, Kelso. George Bolton has zero class for using the opportunity of today’s passing to take a cheap shot at Jerry Moss and John Shirreffs. The Mosses were not sportsmen? Someone let me know the next time a mare wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic as a five year old, and a gallant second by a head as a six year old. Heck, let me know the next time a mare even enters that race as both a five and six year old.

    And it’s nonsense that Zenyatta ever “ducked” Rachel Alexandra. She showed up for the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and then again at Oaklawn in April 2010 for the Apple Blossom, over a speed-favoring dirt surface, when $5 million was put on the table, when a date concession was given, and when no other formidable early speed would have been entered.

  • Barbara

    hip703, Curlin was taken off steroids by January 2008. The BC was run 10 months later.

    On Bolton, yeah, he should have stuck to praising Jackson for the ambitious Rachel campaign of 2009 when she raced three times in Gr. 1 races against male horses as a 3 yr old filly, and not even mentioned Zenyatta. Oh well. To err is to be human.

  • Zen Girl

    I don’t think George Bolton meant it like he was taking a shot at the Zenyatta team. He was just trying to say that Jackson was willing to step out of the box and take a big swing. He swung so hard Rachel was named Champion. Jackson might have rubbed some people the wrong way but at the end of the day he put his money up. That’s all that matters in this great game. He was good for the game.

  • William

    Condolences to his family. Very sad that he didn’t get to see the Curlin/Rachel foal. Perhaps his wife will pick a name for the baby that pays tribute to JJ.

    RIP Mr. Jackson. You will be missed.

  • bookiebuster1

    RIP Mr. Jackson thank you for being a true sportsman and running those horses :)You will be sorely missed in this sport….


    Very sad news. I too was hoping that Mr. Jackson could have held on long enough to see the Curlin/Rachel foal.

    Rest in Peace, Jess, and thank you so much for letting us enjoy watching your horses run.

  • TY…Mr. Jackson…It was a short but sweet ride…

  • Rachel

    A self-made man of deep convictions…he was great for the sport and industry and very, very generous to charity. All in all…not a bad reputation.

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