A Reformer Gone - By Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the April 30, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell

Thoroughbred racing took a major hit last week with the passing of Jess Jackson, as provocative and energetic an owner as the sport will ever see.

An attorney and the owner of the Kendall-Jackson winery, Jackson rose from fan/handicapper to industry titan in just eight years. This incredible run began in 2003 when he purchased horses at the Barretts May 2-year-olds in training sale. Two years later he had acquired the former Buckram Oak Farm near Versailles, Ky., for $17.4 million and then added 640 acres formerly owned by Adena Springs, increasing his total landholdings to more than 1,100 acres. He called his properties Stonestreet Farm, after his middle name.

To feed his growing racing and breeding operation, Jackson was active at the sales, where he put millions of dollars into the pockets of consignors, sellers, and auction houses. He spent nearly $92.7 million at auction between 2003 and 2011.

His drive to succeed brought him and his wife, Barbara Banke, unparalleled success. In 2007 he campaigned a striking, charismatic colt named Curlin. The son of Smart Strike won five graded stakes that year including the Breeders’ Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I). Curlin was rewarded with Horse of the Year honors, and didn’t stop there. Ever the sportsman, Jackson kept Curlin in training and kept aiming for bigger targets. He went on to win the Emirates Airline Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I), Woodward Stakes (gr. I), and Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes (gr. I) in 2008. While Curlin was unable to repeat in the Classic on Santa Anita’s then-synthetic surface, the colt gave Jackson his second golden Horse of the Year trophy.

Amazingly, Jackson had not reached the pinnacle of his racing success. He got that with a remarkable filly named Rachel Alexandra, whom he acquired just after the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I). She had stunned the racing world in the Oaks and made history with a record 20 1/4-length victory. Jackson continued aiming high and rolled her right into the BlackBerry Preakness Stakes (gr. I), where she became the first filly to win in 85 years. Rachel Alexandra had only begun rewriting the history books with Jackson pushing her toward greatness.

She won the Mother Goose (gr. I) by 19 1/4 lengths, the biggest margin in the race’s history (previously held by Ruffian at 13 1/2 lengths) and did it in a stakes-record time of 1:46.33. Rachel would win the Haskell Invitational Stakes (gr. I) against the boys by six lengths, the second-biggest margin in the history of the race. Then she capped it all off by becoming the first filly to win the Woodward Stakes (gr. I).

During the year she defeated eight grade-I winning males. She went head-to-head for Horse of the Year with undefeated phenom Zenyatta and came out on top. Jackson became the first owner since Calumet Farm in the late 1940s to win three consecutive Horse of the Year titles with multiple horses.

Everything was not always warm and cozy between Jackson and the racing industry. While he was building a top-notch racing and breeding operation, he was also sending a tsunami through the commercial sales market. He filed lawsuits against advisers who had taken undisclosed commissions and became a fist-pounding reformer, calling for industry-wide change. Many agents and sellers likely swore off Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay at the time and may still refuse to buy the brand, but his pot-stirring resulted in real action. The Sales Integrity Task Force was created and developed a code of standards. Dual agency was also addressed, and other owners became more educated and aware.
Jackson saw it as tough love for an industry for which he cared deeply.

“Jess was of a generation that didn’t let problems lie,” said owner Earle Mack. “He brought practices that were hurting our industry front and center. When many of us were reluctant to get involved, he led the way with true courage and our industry is so much better today for his actions.”

“I love the horse; I love this industry; and I like the people in it,” Jackson told The Blood-Horse in May 2010. Jackson was slowing down, a forced measure because of his battle with cancer. He said he no longer had the stamina to go 12 hours a day, but he vowed to “always be doing something” in the Thoroughbred industry.

And so he will, even if his physical presence has passed. The powerful influence of the sportsman and the reformer will be felt by all for years to come. 

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