The Little Horse That Could

2012 James Marvin starter Jackson Bend (photo: Kim Brewer)

"If Seabiscuit were picking runners, he'd say, 'Hey, Jackson, I want you on my team,'" one Nicholas P. Zito remarked on a Wednesday afternoon, two days before he was to send Jackson Bend postward in the $100,000 James Marvin Stakes (gr. III) at Saratoga Race Course.

It has been a quiet year for Hall of Famer Zito, but that is not to be confused with an unsuccessful year. Success for the trainer's team came courtesy of this tough, tiny horse with a heart the size of Texas, who twice this season dashed to victory in graded stakes races--most recently the $400,000 Carter Handicap (gr. I) at Aqueduct on April 7.

"It sounds crazy, this conversation," Zito went on, "and he's certainly no Seabiscuit, but if there were Seabiscuit disciples, that's what he'd be."

Per Zito, the attributes a disciple of that legendary old runner would possess are as follows: a tough little guy. Amazing. Obviously not that big, but big in spirit. A little bit of a folk hero, basically.

"The little horse that could," as Jackson Bend has affectionately come to be known, will back up to his favorite distance of seven furlongs July 20 in the James Marvin, one of two features on opening day at the Spa. Zito and main man Bob LaPenta--his owner with a penchant for both promising 2-year-olds and hard-knocking war horses--would like nothing better than to be singing the first words of that old Ray Charles standard, "Here we go again" with their gutsy runner during the meet.

Last season, Jackson Bend parlayed a James Marvin score into victory in the Forego Stakes (gr. I). It was not the first grade I for LaPenta, of course, but it was the first grade I for Jackson Bend, and the thrill of such an accomplishment brought genuine tears of joy to the owner's eyes.

Jackson Bend takes the 2011 Forego (gr. I) at Saratoga (photo: Adam Coglianese)

Even one full year later, LaPenta still gets emotional when he talks about the son of Hear No Evil. It is no surprise to see Jackson Bend coated with mud from his early position midpack or near the back of the field, rallying with determined strides to eke out victory in the final furlongs. With 26 starts and a 9-6-4 record and earnings of $1,603,450, he leaves it all on the track every time.

"He's been such a great little fighter," LaPenta remarked. "He represents what life is all about. He's undersized and doesn't have a great pedigree, but he's all heart; he just wants a win. Always fighting against the odds and fighting bigger horses, that's very inspirational."

The "big" horses Jackson Bend runs against aren't only big in stature; they also boast accomplished resumes. In the Carter he not only beat top sprinter Caleb's Posse, but 2011 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) victor Shackleford as well. In the 2011 Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I), he was third behind Amazombie and Force Freeze. Last year in the Forego and James Marvin there were familiar stakes winners like Sidney's Candy, Aikenite, and Hamazing Destiny, and let's not forget current James Marvin contender Caixa Eletronica, who ran sixth of eight in the 2011 edition but seems to be coming into his own in 2012 with a recent victory in the June 9 True North Handicap (gr. II) at Belmont Park.

Jackson Bend wins the Carter (gr. I) over Caleb's Posse (photo: David Alcosser)

Even a glance at the 2010 racing season, the little horse's 3-year-old year, shows him tangling with giants. Closest of any runner to catching Eskendereya when that one was looked upon as practically the second coming of Secretariat, Jackson Bend was runner-up in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) and Wood Memorial (gr. I) off a second-place finish in the Holy Bull (gr. III). He did not fare well in the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) when encountering a bad trip over the sloppy track and a distance assuredly not to his liking, but he came flying in the Preakness to run third by just three-quarters of a length. The winner was Lookin at Lucky, that year's eventual 3-year-old champ.

"I'd say his most impressive race was the Preakness, and that was a race where again he was in against monsters," LaPenta recalled. "I still have the picture in my mind like it was five seconds ago, where he stuck his little head between four horses at the top of the stretch and came running through. He could almost run between some of those horses' legs. I've watched the replay a thousand times; he showed his grit and his will to win that day. He's always been a fighter but he's been an unlucky horse which kind of adds to the whole emotional thing when he does get through and win."

"It’s an honor and a blessing to be in these big races," Zito remarked. "Since I had Jackson, we went in the Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth, Wood Memorial, Kentucky Derby, Preakness..."

The Pegasus Stakes (gr. III), Ack Ack Handicap (gr. III), Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II), Skip Away Stakes (gr. III), and Miami Mile Handicap (gr. III) are other graded stakes the runner competed in before going on to win the James Marvin. 

"...the Forego, a grade I, which he won, the Carter, a grade I, which he won, on and on... that’s amazing," Zito continued. "Thing about it is, to be in those races alone is a feat, forget winning. Alone, it’s an amazing thing. So he's been a blessing, it’s been a great situation. I'm happy for the LaPenta family to have had this horse to be around, happy for my team to have him around the barn, and I'm happy for me!"

LaPenta is best known for buying his horses at yearling auctions, and it is rare for him to select one off the track to make a private purchase. But when Jackson Bend caught his eye dashing to a five-race win streak as a 2-year-old--a maiden score and four of that season's Florida Stallion Series stakes at Calder Race Course, he decided to approach breeder Fred Brei about a deal. Brei, who also bred and sold undefeated Grey Goose Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) winner Awesome Feather among others, remains a minority partner on the horse.

"At yearling sales you don't really get a sense of what they are," LaPenta explained. "Even though it's not our typical program, it's a great advantage to be able to see a horse on the track. It was the streak and the way he did it that caught our eye. He refused to lose. He displayed the kind of heat you look for."

"Very early on as a 2-year-old, he showed us he was an extraordinarily talented runner," said Brei, who bred Jackson Bend in Florida out of the Tabasco Cat mare Sexy Stockings. "I'm so tired of hearing 'little horse,' I'd like to barf, because when you stand and look at Jackson Bend, you're looking at perfect conformation. That's my kind of horse.

"I think it's fantastic, what he's gone on to do," he continued. "It's not all about the money, it's about the horse, and he's proven that he's the real deal, he's a grade I winner and a millionaire, and there's not a lot of those out there."

LaPenta said Dr. Mark Cheney vetted the colt and was also impressed.

"He said, 'Now, he's very little, but I gotta tell you, he's got a way of moving that is so natural and so unique, it's unbelievable,'" LaPenta recalled. "He said, 'Everything's kind of put together and it's just a natural, fluid motion.'"

Jackson Bend wins the 2011 James Marvin (gr. III) at Saratoga (photo: Adam Coglianese)

Jackson Bend did not exhibit winning ways last time out. Coming off the determined Carter score, he finished fifth in the Met Mile (gr. I) at Belmont May 28, after pressing a speedy pace under Corey Nakatani. It was the first time he'd finished off the board since April of 2011.

"Once I saw him up on the pace and they're going 1:08 and change, I thought, that's the end of that race for us," LaPenta said.

Rosie Napravnik will be up this weekend, with Nakatani back in California for the Del Mar meet.

"I'm hoping he gets along well with our new jockey this Friday, and hopefully he gets a good trip and has a chance to come running," LaPenta said. "He's going back to seven furlongs and he's unbeaten at that distance; he's a little dynamite."

Jackson Bend is no pocket pet. Around the barn he's scrappy, one who will just as soon take a bite out of his groom as he will out of his hay net.

He may look goofy, but watch out for the teeth! (photo: Mathea Kelley)

"He's very aggressive and if you go to visit the barn he'll stick his head out and he'll kind of snake his head around for hours," LaPenta said. "But he's very smart, he's very aware of his surroundings; he's really just a great guy, he's a little dynamite."

"He's almost like a mascot, certainly one that makes us all pick our heads up," Zito said. "Lots of horses have personalities, but Jackson Bend wants the attention. He's fiesty all the time. A horse like him is like a safety valve, like a protection of your barn. Those horses keep the team happy, keep the help upbeat, it's a reflection of your situation. When I come in and look at Dialed In, for instance, he makes my day, every day. He's on the comeback trail. Horses like Jackson, like Albert The Great or Birdstone or Commentator, once they become 4-year-olds, it's a blessing to have them around, no question."

Last year after the hard-knocking runner fought to his James Marvin score, Zito delivered one of his classic philosophical statements.

"You gotta keep digging in, and keep trying, and keep thinking like it could happen," he said.

It's the spirit this little horse that could embodies -- all fifteen-or-so hands of him.

For a complete preview of the James Marvin, click here.

Watch Jackson Bend win the 2011 Forego Stakes (gr. I):


Leave a Comment:

an ole railbird

 this is 1 of my favorite horses. i have followed him his whole race career.

 i also have a mare that if things work out right,when JB is retired to stud. i intend to breed this mare to him.

keep up the good work " little hoss". there are not many horses that i think of, as i do you.

  i am just " an ole railbird"

18 Jul 2012 4:19 PM

Thanks for this profile of a great "little" horse! Whenever we talk about horses being little at 15.3 hands, I think about Seabiscuit and War Admiral, both were 15.2 hands (the movie portrayed WA much larger, but, they were the same size)  Nice addition to my stable watch list.

18 Jul 2012 4:53 PM

I really like Jackson Bend, he's plucky and scrappy! Small but mighty.  I think Nick Zito's mention of Seabiscuit is sort of appropos in this case.  The two horses have many of the same qualities.  

Rosie Napravnik:  I think Jackson Bend will like having her in the irons.  Their styles mesh.  I hope he responds well to her piloting him.  

Nick Zito is a trainer with a lot of class.  I've always liked and admired him.  He's a very fine trainer.  He trained the very first Derby winner I ever played, Go For Gin.  And I played Go For Gin in large part because I liked the low-keyed optimism he always had in his horse whenever he was being interviewed during Derby week.  I still like that about Nick Zito.  He has quiet confidence, a fabulous trait.  Keep up the excellent work, Mr. Zito.  And you too, Jackson Bend!

18 Jul 2012 6:10 PM

Great article about my fav horse, Little J Bend. Have followed every race this little fighter has ever run. Luck and a Safe trip home little J Bend.To the team Zito and Mr La Penta best of luck with this great little runner.His heart is as big as Texas, I am in Texas and proud that he is such a fighter.He will always be at the top of my list of horses.GO Lil J Bend.

18 Jul 2012 9:02 PM
Paula Higgins

I really enjoyed this article Claire. Nice writing. I have always liked Jackson Bend and Nick Zito. Good to see them highlighted.

18 Jul 2012 10:36 PM
Needler in Virginia

This is EXACTLY what racing needs right now.......a REAL hero that stays around longer than a nanosecond, a trainer with class, and an owner that sticks with his horse, NO MATTER WHAT!

YOU GO, JB! We'll be watching!

18 Jul 2012 11:46 PM

These days most horses barely make it past their 3-year-old season before they are retired.  Looking back at the 3-year-olds from "The Class of 2010", how many can you come up with that are still racing competitively on a graded stakes level?  Jackson Bend is one of the few still going strong!  In a sport where there seems to be fewer and fewer heroes for racing fans to cheer about, it is wonderful and uplifting to have this durable little horse with the BIG, BIG heart to root for time and time again.  To me, this is what horse racing is all about.

19 Jul 2012 12:10 AM

Pretty boy! Great article!

19 Jul 2012 12:24 AM
an ole railbird

 I keep coming back to this blog & looking @ the pictures of the races between JB & caleb's posse. You can read the intentsity of each horse, by looking at their expressons. It is the look of DO OR DIE.

I dont think that most people know how competive these horses become, especialy 2 stallions that have competed on a regular basis. They reconize each other when they hook up, eye to eye, down the lane, & will pour out all the effort that they can muster.

    in the begining of the USA, when George Washington & his crew were selecting a symbol to repersent the USA, there were only a few votes separting the finalists for the national emblem. i dont know the number of votes or anything. but i have read the 3 finalists were bald eagle, 2 game cocks fighting, & 3 horses racing. i have read that George Washington voted for the game cocks, James Madison wanted the horses racing, Thomas Jefferson wanted the bald eagle.

 Modern-day horses are more domisticated than earlier horses, therefore they will become more competive than their ansecestors. That contributes to the reason for breakdowns.  

Have a nice day,

  "an ole railbird".

19 Jul 2012 2:56 AM

I'm fond of milers, Jackson Bend is also one of my favorite ponies, along with Caleb's Posse, whom I will miss tremendously. For his size, Jackson does an awesome job. Much of racing is run between the ears. JB proves that to be true. I was shocked when he edged out Caleb in the Carter. Too bad a rematch isn't in the cards. Good luck Jackson and Rosie!

19 Jul 2012 5:29 AM

Nick Zito and his crew are a CLASS ACT in this sport.    He is passionate and dedicated to his horses and I've loved JACKSON BEND from the first time I saw him run.   the fact that my favorite trainer has him is icing on the cake because I KNOW that this horse is in GREAT hands.   I will be VERY interested to follow JB's offspring when he starts producing, but for now, it's great to have a "horse hero" to continue to root for!   Thanks to the owner for keeping him running and not whisking him off to stud duties just yet!  :)

19 Jul 2012 8:33 AM
Karen in Indiana

Excellent article, Claire.

I never thought of Jackson Bend as little, mainly because I don't think he knows it so he doesn't act it. But then in one of his races last year, there was a panoramic shot and it was the race Shackleford was in. What a contrast! I have loved this guy since he was 2 (I follow the ones with Tabasco Cat as broodmare sire) so it's been wonderful watching him find his place.

19 Jul 2012 9:23 AM
peggy conroy

I think this horse gets his movement and grit from the female side of his pedigree down to Anticipating's daughter, Antilassa. I had a super-moving colt by Anticipating years ago. He's from the La Troienne female family which often throws really exceptionally nice movers.

19 Jul 2012 9:28 AM
Pedigree Ann

More proof that a horse needn't be 17 hands tall or have a fashionable sire to be a major-leauge performer. Too many yearling buyers (and fans, I might add) are fixated on the huge size of many of today's competitors as indicative of superior talent. Repeat after me - Northern Dancer was little, Danzig was little, Rahy was little,..., Megahertz was little! Good horses come in all sizes.

19 Jul 2012 10:54 AM

Thanks for writing about this guy, he deserves the press.  

I was trackside for The Carter and had bet Shackleford earlier as my play of the day.  

Then I took a gander at the horses in the paddock. Jackson Bend is small but he's put together like someone made the perfect specimen. It was a hot spring day and very humid. This horse looked so calm, cool, collected and ready.  Not to mention his being so disrespected by the bettors that I did something I rarely do...I ran to the window and bet against my play of the day.  I'm sure glad I did.  Posse closed like a banshee but Jackson held on it was a humdinger.

I believe this horse will do well at stud.  While his breeding isn't's very interesting.  How often do you see an outcross through the fifth generation in American bloodlines?

I remember Talc the broodmares grandsire.  Jackson reminds me quite a bit of him.

I'll wrap up by saying....could?

Jackson Bend is the little horse that can.

p.s.  Ole railbird...good luck with that cover.

19 Jul 2012 11:13 AM
Love 'em all

Love this "little hoss" with the most heart of any out there.  I've been a fan of his for years and will continue to be as long as he wishes.  JB IS the real deal, for sure.  Love him with all MY heart.

Best wishes to JB and Rosie tomorrow ... I'll be rooting for them.  

19 Jul 2012 11:36 AM
Love 'em all

Meant to add, John Henry comes to mind when the words "little" and "feisty" are used in the same sentence to describe a great racehorse.  Gotta love those little fellas!

JB's 'the man' ... and bet he'll be "the boss" in the breeding shed.  [grinning]

19 Jul 2012 11:59 AM
Claire Novak

Thanks for the great feedback, guys! Would love to hear your thoughts on future horses/figures in the sport to cover! :-)

19 Jul 2012 12:00 PM

How can you write an article that refers *repeatedly* to how small a horse is without ONCE actually giving his height?  How big IS this horse, and how tall is the average three-year-old?

19 Jul 2012 2:17 PM
Terry M.

Everyone says he is very little. So how tall is he anyway?

Perfect conformation and movement in a small package is something I'd choose over a big horse with faults any day.

19 Jul 2012 3:28 PM

Love, love, love Jackson Bend. Thanks, Claire, for this excellent profile of one of my favorites!

19 Jul 2012 4:15 PM

I've loved Jackson Bend since the first time I saw him race. Frankly, I was a little disappointed he went on the Triple Crown trail, since it was pretty clear to me the distances were beyond his scope.  Boy, did he fool me, nearly pulling off a Preakness victory!  Still, his best distance has proved to be 7 furlongs, with 6 just a little too short and 8 perhaps a tad too long.  It's because of the distance limitations and unfashionable pedigree that he is still running for us to enjoy him, and for that I'm grateful.  Too many of my favorites leave the track for the breeding shed before even getting a chance to show what they are really made of. I doubt JB will be well backed when he does retire to stud, though I for one, would not underestimate him.  If he passes on his heart, his offspring should be runners to be reckoned with!

19 Jul 2012 6:59 PM

There are a lot of horses I like in the James Marvin field, but I would not be the least bit disappointed if JB pulls it off. He is a favorite!

19 Jul 2012 8:29 PM
By a long nose

Feedback: keep us awake next time.

19 Jul 2012 10:41 PM

Little Jackson Bend is always one of my favorites.  I still remember one race where the saddle cloths were so large, his hung down to his knees.  It reminded me of a little girl trying on Mommy's dresses.  But there is no mistaking this little guy for anything less than a lion on the track.  He thrills me with every race.  I'm happy they found his best groove in the one-turn mile.  He is so consistent, and always excels with a smile.

Ole railbird: terrific choice for a cover.  Best of luck to you.

20 Jul 2012 8:44 AM
Paula Higgins

Comments on here are great. ole rail burd, loved your comments on the national emblem. Informative and fun. As much as I love horses, the American Eagle was the right choice. How about a piece on Zenyatta's and Rachel Alexandra's boys? I know they haven't set foot on a track, but would be interesting to hear about their personalities etc.

20 Jul 2012 2:07 PM

I love this horse.  I root for him every time he runs.  He adds excitement to every race because there is always the possibility he can win it.  I love his grit and he's a pretty little thing too.

20 Jul 2012 4:53 PM
an ole railbird

  it never fails,in my case. see, here i am over her on this blog, ew & awing ,over a horse, like a child.

 all the while he on the track ,getting his butt out ran by a long shot.

  another case of murphys law.

brag on them & it will come back to haunt, EVER TIME.

  thats why, i am just "an ole railbird.

20 Jul 2012 6:28 PM

I been following horse,s for years . It excited me to finally meet an owner . Bob is a proud man when talking about his horses not only Jackson all of them. You talk to bob n Laurie about there horses u think they are talking about their kids .every horse , what race they are in ,what track they are running at. What wonderful people and proud owners . Great article enjoyed it . Keep up the good work

20 Jul 2012 9:03 PM

I fell in love with JB when I saw him giving 100% in races against Eskendereya. It was great to see him get a second chance as a sprinter and he has really thrived as one. Just like Seabiscuit he has shown that having a huge heart can compensate for shortcomings in other areas.

22 Jul 2012 9:11 PM
Mike Relva

Followed his career from the beginning.

23 Jul 2012 11:05 AM

Hey Ole Rail Bird...... Who did you vote for???

26 Jul 2012 11:42 AM
an ole railbird

plodderman, i didnt vote that day. i played hooky,& watched the roosters fight & the horses race.

   ( just a little funnin).

 yall have a nice day.

  "an ole railbird"

27 Jul 2012 4:24 PM
Terry M.

Still don't know how tall he is. Everyone keeps saying he is little. How little? Curious folks want to know!

Northern Dancer was little, too. Didn't stop him from becoming great.

31 Jul 2012 1:30 PM

Jackson Bend is not only the little horse that could, but he comes out of the little stable and little trainer who could. Jacks Or Better is a small farm, yet they have fabulous horses. And their trainer, Stanley Gold, exclusively trains their horses and has done a marvelous job. When Jackson Bend had difficulties, Zito sent him back to Gold and back to Calder to get it right.

Maybe Frank Stronach should consider doing the same thing with Awesome Feather, when she doesn't seem right.

One of the trainers who used to work at Calder told me that horses step up from there. Calder has a deeper track, which is more challenging for horses to run on. Once horses go from training and running on a deeper and more difficult track (Calder), they step up in class at faster more shallow tracks.

If you want to look for future stars, look at the two year olds who do well at Calder.

02 Aug 2012 7:37 AM

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