04/22/2011 2:41PM

Jackson made the most of short time in game


Tuxedo jacket tossed aside, bow tie loosened and lost, Jess Jackson was sweating through his formal dress shirt on the dance floor at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on that night in January 2008 when his chestnut colt Curlin was named 2007 Horse of the Year. As he took a breather between tunes, his shock of white hair askew, Jackson smiled in the direction of the golden trophy displayed on his table and answered a question that really didn’t need to be asked.

“Oh I’m having a great time,” Jackson beamed. “Isn’t he just a beautiful, wonderful horse?”

Of course, the lawyer in Jackson knew the answer before he uttered the words. Curlin was indeed a beautiful, wonderful Thoroughbred, Jackson’s pride and joy, acquired after one start on no more than a glinting shard of promise and cultivated into the leading money-winning American horse of all time.

JESS JACKSON: Career highlights as an owner, selected replays and past performances

For most owners, one Curlin in a lifetime would have been enough. Jackson’s appetites were large, though, and after Curlin left the stage at the end of 2008, the owner went right back to the well in the spring of 2009, this time buying a finished product – Rachel Alexandra – who became Jackson’s third consecutive Horse of the Year. In the history of recognized American championships, dating back to 1936, no owner ever enjoyed such a run with more than a single horse.

Jackson, who died Thursday at the age of 81, was on a trajectory similar to the arc of the Thoroughbred empire created by aerospace entrepreneur Allen Paulson. Their vision was comprehensive. They dreamed large dreams and executed them accordingly.

Paulson was 61 in 1983 when he began spending some of the money he earned going public with Gulfstream Aerospace Technologies on high-priced colts, solid gold mares, and farms in Kentucky, Florida, and California. In 1989, he bought Arazi, a champion colt of 1991 on two continents. In 1995 and ’96, Paulson took on the world with Cigar, a two-time Horse of the Year. By July 2000, when he died at 78, Paulson left behind not only a legacy of robust bloodlines and success at the highest reaches of the sport, but also an unstarted 2-year-old filly who went on to become three-time champion and 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri.

Jackson was already 70 when he turned the full force of his attention and resources upon Thoroughbred racing and breeding. Whether or not he knew he had only a decade left to live, he certainly went after the game in a hurry. But then, as one of the world’s largest vintners, Jackson already knew how to build large, agriculturally oriented facilities quickly and efficiently.

Like Paulson, Jackson was a self-made success with a broad iconoclastic streak. Significantly, as they confronted the steep learning curve exacted by the entrenched Thoroughbred culture, both Paulson and Jackson waged early legal battles against advisers that riveted the industry. The point, they insisted, was to change behaviors rather than take scalps. They may have done a little of both.

Paulson was a shy, soft-spoken man who probably said more to his pair of towering white standard poodles during the course of the day than to his golf partners or business contacts. Jackson, by contrast, fancied hard-working German shepherds and relished the give-and-take of the public square. He never met an argument he could not at least battle to a draw.

Unlike the patrons of racing who made their money sitting behind desks, enriching themselves through keen intellect on the wings of financial markets, Jackson and Paulson actually built stuff that people bought. As builders – of jets and wineries – they brought to Thoroughbreds a deep appreciation of the product itself.

Paulson, an inveterate tinkerer, liked to know how things worked before he put them to their most profitable use. That is why, once he acquired an appreciation of the mechanics of the Thoroughbred, he shied away from running his horses as 2-year-olds.

Jackson was still relatively new to the breeding business, although the herd was growing, at his Stonestreet Farms in both Kentucky and Northern California. He was applying many of the lessons he learned growing grapes, nurturing the vines, and for all appearances Jackson was not going to be content with raising the frail, disposable Thoroughbred product for which American breeders were becoming known.

Jackson was also the first owner of the Internet age to treat his top horses as if they were brands, their widespread exposure requiring corporate crafting beyond their proven quality in competition. So it was that through the reigns of Curlin and Rachel Alexandra there were regular and carefully worded press releases divulging their plans and upcoming appearances. Rather than the off-handed, casual remarks usually expected from the barn, their trainer, Steve Asmussen, deferred any substantive questions regarding Jackson’s horses to Jackson himself, who then controlled the message while continually bathing the message with statements like, “Well, Curlin’s one of the greatest horses who ever lived. But that’s only my opinion.”

Whether or not the racing media bristled at such control is beside the point. It’s our job to do the most with what we can get, and get more if we need it. The point being, Jackson, for all his bombast, put his stars out there to be tested in a manner of which Paulson would have approved. Both Cigar and Curlin ran and won in Dubai, triumphed on treacherous tracks in the Breeders’ Cup, and went into retirement after losing races when a step or two past their prime that did nothing to sully their names.

The first conversation I ever had with Jess Jackson was about surfing the beaches of Southern California as a teenager. He was still getting up on a board late in life. He was also finding a large voice in a new arena, beyond his iconic stature in wine, as one of horse racing’s most recognizable personalities. If nothing else, let him be remembered for a television interview during which he shared with a major network audience the one truth he’d known since his youngest days:

“There’s nothing more beautiful than a Thoroughbred running.”

You’ve got to drink to that.