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. 


Leave a Comment:

Sheila Lyons, DVM

Well said.  While so many talk of reform, he took action.  Jess Jackson will be sorely missed on every level of this industry.

26 Apr 2011 3:03 PM

The matters he addressed were important to bring into the light of day and certainly brought more transperency into the marketplace.  However, it is much easier to take the high road when you are a billionaire, self-made or not, than someone who is trying to buy groceries to feed his family and a lot of bad decisions are made by those who find themselves in the latter position.  For them, it is all about survival.

26 Apr 2011 4:32 PM
The Deacon

If anyone ever gets a chance to visit Mr. Jackson's vineyard in the Sonoma, Ca. area I highly recommend it. I have been there several times, it is a beautiful place with a absolutely gorgeous setting. My wife's favorite wine is the Reserve Chardonay. Mr Jackson did much for our industry, Curlin and Rachel Alexandra came along at a time when this hallowed industry needed a real shot in the arm. He gave us hope and anticipation. rachel captured our hearts and left us breathless. We wanted more of her, and both Rachel and Mr. Jackson gave us everything they had. The industry needs more of Jess Jackson's, and sorry to say but Rachel was one of a kind. I am confidant in saying that we won't see the likes her in my lifetime. There was only 1 Ruffian, only 1 Zenyatta, and only 1 Rachel Alexandra...............

26 Apr 2011 4:47 PM
Mike Relva


Good article,but the fact remains what's ignored here is RA was raced nearly into the ground in 09,resulting in her sudden retirement last year,without fanfare that she richly deserved. Her form didn't decline by accident. So,when underscoring the thrills RA gave connections and fans,should be noted at what price!

26 Apr 2011 6:57 PM
Mary in VT

Thank you for this stirring tribute to a giant among men.

Jess Jackson's obituary appears in various forms all over the net and in various media. No one article comes close to covering his staggering list of accomplishments. That would take a book. I am simply astonished how this man effected not just the horse industry but the wine industry as well where he also went straight to the head of a very large and very old class in very short order.

Now I understand why some bitterly hated him in the horse industry. He exposed them for what they were and changed the way they did business.

No wonder so many of us that never even met the man are so profoundly affected by his loss. He changed the very fabric of our lives.

I'll bet for every stinker that will no longer tip a glass of his Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay there are at least a dozen new fans drawn to the sport of kings because of the way he showcased Curlin and Rachel who won't stop until they have sampled everything Mr. Jackson ever put in a bottle.

The high road is its own reward.

Condolences to the family. Condolences to us all.

26 Apr 2011 7:33 PM

I worked for Jess as his law clerk in the 80's in San Francisco. He was a interesting insightful straight forward funny man who loved the sport of horse racing.... who will be surely missed.

26 Apr 2011 9:38 PM
Mary in VT

Relva, Relva, Relva,

Your slam doesn't belong among grateful responses to the man's obit. We're not playing limbo here .. ya know .. that game where everyone is trying to see how loooow they can go.

After Rachel's Kentucky Oaks and Mother Goose walkovers against her own age and sex Mr. Jackson was entirely justified not wasting her races on 3 YO fillies.

Rachel handled top 3 YO colts with consummate ease in the Haskell. I know. I was there. Piece of cake. She had 'em for lunch while racing well within herself. But of course, the other connections all raced like gentleman meaning that their horses were in it to win it themselves per the rules of racing.

After twice handling the creme dela creme of 3 YO colts in nothing less than the Preakness Stakes and the Haskell Invitational she had surely earned her shot at older horses. Many people think that shot at older horses gutted her and I tend to agree. It wasn't the campaign up until that point. It was the Woodward, and the Woodward alone that sapped her of her love to race and win, but it was because of the way that race unfolded, not because her campaign added up to more than she should have been asked for.

And it wasn't Mr. Jackson's fault. Far from it.

How could a man like Mr. Jackson whose entire existence was synonymous with integrity even conceive of the majority of the Woodward field throwing away their own chances at a win in order to try to beat his filly? Or did you think that Belmont Stakes winner DaTara's usual modus operandi was a first quarter in 22 and change? Hello? That filly ran a gauntlet of older males that unleashed the best they had in successive volleys throwing their own chances to the wind in a futile attempt to beat Rachel Alexandra. They weren't in it to win it. They were in it to beat the 3 YO phenom that they knew was going to make them look bad if they ran an honest race. It was the cruelest thing I have ever seen on a racetrack. Shame on every last one of them.

You will never convince me that Mr. Jackson knew what she was in for. Never.

I could be wrong, but I did think that Mr. Jackson took an uncharacteristic misstep when he brought Rachel out before she was ready in 2010 in an attempt to get a tune up race in her prior to a meet up with Zenyatta. Even then he understood that was exactly what he was doing. I understand why he did it. Once again, he was trying to give the fans what they wanted. What he couldn't yet know was that Rachel was just going obediently around the track. Her great heart was no longer in it. Oh she won some races and was never worse than second. She turned in a better Beyer than eventual Classic winner Blame on - was it Stephen Foster day? She came back a lot better than a lot of defending champions do. I don't see anyone bashing Hollendorfer because Blind Luck can't find the winner's circle this year and she certainly was never tested the way that Rachel was tested. No, no. Hollendorfer gets nominated to the Hall of Fame the year his defending champion can't find the winner's circle.

< I'm a big fan of both Hollendorfer and his plucky little Blind Luck .. so don't even go there .. I was just making the point that some people don't treat everyone even handedly.>

The fact that Mr. Jackson tested and truly defined his horses was one of the very best things about him. He wasn't afraid to lose because I believe that he understood that the bigger loss would have been to never know what he had.

I'm still profoundly effected by the loss of this great man and will always be very very grateful to him.

Sheesh. Jess Jackson and Sadler's Wells gone in the same week and now they say that Tom Durkin isn't calling the Classics? Truly - what *is* going on here?

Mary in Vermont

26 Apr 2011 11:05 PM
The Deacon

Mike Relva:  Well said...........tell it like it is.

seems to be always a price to pay for greatness........

27 Apr 2011 3:13 AM

Rest in Peace Mr. Jackson.  Typically, anyone who stirs the pot will be criticized, and Jess Jackson was.  Yet, the pot got stirred, and it needed to be.  I truly respected his quest for the Iron Horse and the breeding needed to create and sustain that kind of horse in this industry.  I also equally admired his deep respect for the role of the mare in the breeding....very rare!!  Of recent years Curlin and Rachel Alexandra won their way deep into my heart as indeed my favorites.  I don't think Jess required any more from his horses than he required of himself...to keep facing bigger and bigger challenges.  I remember an interview he did prior to the 2007 Kentucky Derby when he was talking about Curlin.  His eyes, his face were lit up like some celestial being, and one could never dispute his love for Curlin, and the horse in general.  There will be controversial debate throughout history as to whether he ran Rachel too hard...never to be the same again.  All I can do with this discussion is look beyond the superficial, into what his intent most likely was...and I believe it was lofty and kind and caring for RA.  I feel that he saw her...really saw her and her tremendous gifts, and wanted to bring this filly into full realization of her talents.  If it was a mitake, it was not his intent.  I just wish Mr. Jackson could have lived long enough to see the foal that these two courageous and beautiful horses create.  Many blessings to his family in their loss.

27 Apr 2011 12:23 PM

As much as I appreciate many of the things that Jess did for the industry, there are a few things missing from this article. First off, I completely agree that his campaign of Rachel ruined her. There was no need to keep pushing her as hard as they did. She proved how amazing she was in the Preakness, and even before that. I wish she had stayed with Hal Wiggins and D. Morrison, as they truly loved her and treated her as a family member, not just a money-earner. Also, while Jess was investing millions of dollars in TB racing, he was laying off employees at KJ and other wineries at rapid speed. I am from Sonoma County and live about 5 miles from the KJ winery. Maybe he should have sold the winery so he could focus on TB racing etc. Again, he did do a lot of good for horse racing, but there was another side that no one talks about.

27 Apr 2011 12:55 PM

Rachel Alexandra was not run into the ground! She had 4 starts, 2 wins and 2 seconds. She retired sound and is in foal. That sounds like a success story to me. So she didn't sprout wings and take off like Pegasus last year, so what? Many people would give anything to own a horse that did what she did...in 2010! Stop second guessing and look back and smile. Thank you Mr. Jackson. You were a class act.

27 Apr 2011 1:45 PM

Hah! Mike Relva! Are you a Vet? Do you know something the rest of the world doesn't know about RA? Or is it just your ignorant observation regarding the comment you made about RA being raced into the ground?  In case you do not understand how ownership works ... Jess Jackson owned RA ... Jess Jackson took care of RA ... Jess Jackson had the right to do whatever he pleased with HIS horse.  Did you ever think that HE made the decision to retire HIS horse when HE was ready?  Maybe, just maybe Jess Jackson knew he would not be here long and wanted to see HIS horse RA be a mother.  And oh btw I know people that went to see her in her new home and said that she never looked better and is well LOVED and cared for!!!  

It is with great admiration and gratitude to a man who gave so much to the racing industry in a very short time.  He is one of a kind and there will never be another like him.  My deepest condolences go to his family and connections.  

27 Apr 2011 2:23 PM
Rachel NH

A self-made man of vision, determination and opinions who was right far more than he was wrong...he raced his horses like race horses...I will really miss him.

27 Apr 2011 5:09 PM
Mike Relva


First, it DOESN'T TAKE A VET to determine that RA wasn't the same last year. Her form was in serious decline. 4 RACING,what do you suppose caused that? She was clearly gutted in the Woodward,Hal Wiggins stated the same regarding that. Sorry I hit a nerve,but it's a fact. Leaving that one race off might have made all the difference. So,was it worth it? Racing is a dying sport in need of stars would've been nice for RA to enjoyed great things last yr,but wasn't in the cards. Someone has to take the blame! MARY IN VT,I think you're used to limbo,you've played it often enough on other blogs!

27 Apr 2011 5:52 PM
Mike Relva


It's not rocket science or else you would be out in the cold! RA,as a result of 09,paid the price and was in serious decline last yr! Deal with it!

27 Apr 2011 5:56 PM
Rich P

I don't know why you're all falling all over yourselves to glorify Jackson. All he ever did was use his money to buy great horses bred and trained by others. He used Rachel to promote his wine so much he should have changed her name to Rachel Jackson. And as far as his being a great sportsman, well, he ducked Zenyatta every chance he got. Sure Rachel was a game winner of the Woodward, beating males, but there wasn't a legitimate Graded Stakes contender in the race. She beat nothing, in a September race, then ducked Zenyatta the rest of the year.Jackson was only out for himself. Don't be fooled.

28 Apr 2011 9:48 AM
Rich P

Regarding the Woodward (Mary in VT), DaTara won the Belment wire to wire. Did you expect them to take back in the Woodward as a courtesy to Jackson? No, they went for the lead again and sometimes when two fast horses go the front you get a 22 quarter. If Rachel was so great they should have taken back. or could she only win one way?

28 Apr 2011 10:03 AM

Wow - Mike Relva is back, with his rants and accusations. Next, we'll have name-calling in capital letters with exclamation points. Mike, I'll make it simple - RA's form did change from one year to the next. It's also easy to find examples of horses who were campaigned very hard and were fine the next year. It's also easy to find examples of horses who were campaigned hard and improved the next year. Hanging around the Barbaro websites might make you a fan (always a good thing), but it certainly (and quite obviously) does not make you an expert.

28 Apr 2011 11:16 AM

Yes, Jess, you will still be doing something positive in the Thoroughbred Industry. With God's Blessing, next year we will see Curlin and Rachel's foal be born. Thank you for having the courage to speak out & make changes in the racing industry.

28 Apr 2011 2:23 PM

My god, I have never seen someone so disrespected because their horse had the gall, to imagine it, finish second! in my life. This is just sad. Mr. Jackson thank you for racing your horses for three full seasons.

30 Apr 2011 3:58 PM

As an owner, if you had a horse start in five stakes races, won two of them (including a grade II) and placed second in the other three (including a grade I) and earn more than $558,000, wouldn't you consider that a successful year? Especially if the horse retired without any debilitating injury.

That is what Jackson had with Rachel Alexandra in 2010. Obviously, she wasn't as brilliant in 2010 as she had been in 2009. But it is stretch to say it's because she was run into the ground. Her shortest time between races was the two weeks between the Kentucky Oaks and the Preakness. Trainer Steve Asmussen then waited six weeks before she ran in the Mother Goose Stakes. It was then four weeks to the Haskell and four weeks to the Woodward. Tough races? Sure, but she proved she had the ability to handle both.

Rachel then got a six-and-a-half month break, and Jackson took heat for bypassing the Breeders' Cup.

He definitely challenged Rachel in order to prove her exceptional ability but raced her into the ground he did not.

02 May 2011 3:21 PM
Mike Relva


Nice for you to single me out,thanks. My point is,(it doesn't take an "expert") to know that RA was pushed  beyond her means which resulted in a sub par year in 2010. Aren't you going to comment that she was practually whisked away in the nite,instead of the type of retirement she richly deserved? Guess not! BTW,Tom I'll take Mr. Wiggins word anyday when he stated on Shandlers' blog last yr she was gutted in the Woodward.

02 May 2011 3:30 PM

Rich P, I have to disagree. Yes he spent a lot of money and bought a lot of great horses. But he also turned a very bright spotlight on the sales market and championed some real changes in how agents conduct business. More often than not, an owner/buyer who gets burned just walks away and passes on his bad experience to his friends. Jackson fought for reform in order to bring more integrity and more transparency to the sales. The process was messy and he made a lot of enemies, but he's to be commended for taking on the fight.

02 May 2011 3:32 PM
Mike Relva


You always throw your weight around-fine. At least unlike AAF and CS  don't think I "wrote the book" on racing,cause I know I didn't. Was making an observation that's certainly  echoed by several that are experts. My point is wouldn't it been great if perhaps connections hadn't drained the tank and last year where at least she resembled the RA of '09?

02 May 2011 3:42 PM
Mike Relva


I'll repeat again,will take Hal Wiggins word that RA WAS GUTTED in the Woodward. He should know.

02 May 2011 5:44 PM

Mike, I hear you and I don't dispute Hal's comment, which I've re-posted below. In that interview with BloodHorse.com's Jason Shandler, he said he probably would have run Rachel against the boys if he retained ownership, but how do you know which race may have taken the steam out of her?  

Wiggins Talks Rachel (excerpt):

JS: Her 2010 campaign was very strange to me, almost from the start. What did you make of it?

HW: I was really surprised too. First off, and even Steve (Asmussen) said it, they tried to rush her back for the Apple Blossom. Even when they got (Oaklawn) to push it back a week I thought, ‘one week isn't going to make a big difference.' It just seemed like the whole year was kind of off kilter.

At the same time, I think Steve did a great job with her in 2009, winning all those races. It was very aggressive and they got what they wanted out of her. But I think they paid the price. I think the Woodward gutted her.

JS: So you think the Woodward took that much out of her. What makes you say that?

HW: Just watching the race. She was all out and I think sometimes when a filly has to do that she has a hard time coming back, even with rest. It might have quit being fun for her. When she was running against 3-year-old fillies she was never extended; she did it so easily. After races, she was dragging the rider around the track. After you give everything you have a couple times, it takes something away from them.

JS: Do you think she may have been left in the barn too long before getting started this year?

HW: It's hard to say. I wasn't around her and I don't want to second guess. Steve is an excellent horseman and if he felt she needed the time off she probably did. But whether he gave her two months or six months off, I don't think she would have been the same in 2010. And that's not to criticize anyone. Steve did a great job with her and he made her Horse of the Year. I was proud of her the whole time. But never in my mind did I think it was the time off that changed her.

Read the whole interview at: cs.bloodhorse.com/.../wiggins-talks-rachel.aspx

02 May 2011 8:45 PM
Mike Relva


Thanks for providing the info. I don't know which race used her up for sure,but if was guessing,would say the Woodward. No way of knowing,but without the Woodward she might have been close to being herself last yr.

02 May 2011 9:53 PM

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