Updated on 04/25/2011 12:08PM

Jess Jackson, owner of Rachel Alexandra and Curlin, dead at age 81

Jess Jackson (right) and Steve Asmussen accept Curlin's second Horse of the Year Award in January 2009.

Jess Jackson, owner of the Stone­street Stables that campaigned Horses of the Year Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, died at home in Geyserville, Calif., on Thursday. The cause was complications from cancer, according to a release issued Thursday morning by his Kendall-Jackson Winery. Jackson was 81.

"He's an irreplaceable human being," said Steve Asmussen, who trained Curlin and Rachel Alexandra for Jackson.

Asmussen assistant Scott Blasi, who was to saddle Jackson and George Bolton's Astrology in the Grade 2 Jerome Stakes on Saturday at Aqueduct, said, "Mr. Jackson was such a competitor at everything he did. He was a champion in accepting winning and a champion in accepting defeat. There's no better person that I ever worked for as far as generosity, compassion. He had a deep love for his horses and wanted what was best for them at all times. I've never seen a guy have respect for horses like Mr. Jackson had."

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

Jackson first raced Thoroughbreds in the 1960s as a partner with his uncle, Dr. I. B. Ballenger, and returned more seriously in 2003. He quickly developed the reputation as a high-rolling auction purchaser. In 2004 he spent almost $22 million at the Keeneland November sale alone to buy 95 horses. Most were mares destined for his broodmare band. One of his numerous expensive purchases was Quiet Eclipse, whom he bought in 2007 for $1.6 million. She was carrying Astrology at the time.

Jackson led buyers of 2-year-olds by gross expenditures last year, after buying seven juveniles for $4,550,000. They included the year's highest-priced juvenile colt, Brock, for $2.3 million. Jackson still was acquiring horses as recently as April 12, when he bought the Keeneland April juvenile auction's sale-topper, a $625,000 Indian Charlie-Teenage Temper colt, and a $485,000 War Front-La Prada colt.

A famously competitive bidder, Jackson also became known as an iconoclast who was not afraid to challenge issues he saw in the Thoroughbred sales world.

In 2005, he sued three of his former bloodstock advisers - Emmanuel de Seroux, Bruce Headley, and Brad Martin - alleging, among other things, that the agents had defrauded him by inflating the prices of horses they sold to Jackson and taking secret commissions from sellers on Jackson's purchases. De Seroux countersued, and in 2007 those two settled, with de Seroux paying Jackson $3.5 million while admitting no fault or wrongdoing. Jackson, Headley, and Martin had settled earlier.

The litigation led Jackson to lobby the Kentucky legislature for a new law designed to combat undisclosed dual agency, the practice of a single agent representing both sides of an equine transaction without disclosing that fact to the buyer and seller. That resulted in a 2006 law in the state explicitly outlawing the practice in horse sales.

MORE: George Bolton remembers Jackson for his compassion and sportsmanship

In 2008, Jackson also testified before a Congressional hearing convened after Eight Belles's fatal breakdown in that year's Kentucky Derby. Jackson testified that the sport "has a drug problem" and said racing desperately needed "a legitimate national owners' governing body with federally sanctioned authority to make and enforce consistent rules, regulations, and standards."

He criticized Thoroughbred racing's "broken business model," saying, "The industry focuses excessively on breeding horses for early, brilliant speed at relatively short distances. Today too many breeders end up producing heavily conformed upper-body-muscled horses with relatively fragile legs. . . . We need stamina and durability as well as speed."

Jackson also called for more owners and breeders to breed horses to race rather than sell.

In 2005, he acquired the former Buckram Oak Farm near Lexington, Ky., and made it the Kentucky headquarters for his growing Thoroughbred racing and breeding empire. He named it Stonestreet after his own middle name, and today the farm is the home of Rachel Alexandra.

Jackson and partner Hal McCormick bought Rachel Alexandra, a Medaglia d'Oro filly, after her 20-length victory in the 2009 Kentucky Oaks. For them, she went on to win the Preakness Stakes, Haskell Invitational, Mother Goose, and Woodward en route to her 2009 Horse of the Year title. She is now in foal to Curlin.

"I think the belief or the guts it took for him to run her in the Preakness was incredible," said Asmussen. "It was the belief that she was good enough. I hope he was personally rewarded for that strong decision."

Jackson partnered with Padua Stables and George Bolton to buy Curlin privately after he won his first race by more than 12 lengths. A Smart Strike colt, he went on to win seven Grade 1 races, including the 2007 Preakness and 2008 Dubai World Cup, and was voted Horse of the Year in 2007 and 2008. Jackson later bought out his partners and now stands Curlin at Lane's End Farm.

"I know the feeling that I had when they put Curlin's number up in the Preakness," Asmussen said. "He made that possible. Things that happened, they happened for all of us."

Jackson is survived by his wife, Barbara Banke; five children - Jennifer Hartford, Laura Giron, Katie Jackson, Julia Jackson, and Christopher Jackson - and two grandchildren, Hailey Hartford and MacLean Hartford.

- additional reporting by David Grening

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