12/03/2009 12:00AM

Jess Jackson: Shooting from the hip

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Barbara D. Livingston
Jess Jackson (right) with Rachel Alexandra after her victory in the Preakness, one of her five Grade 1 wins in 2009.

Jess Jackson may have boycotted the Breeders' Cup by keeping his horses away, but his wife, Barbara Banke, was on hand at Santa Anita, and in Kentucky the moneybags winemaker himself was in front of a TV set, greatly interested in the race he had shunned.

Zenyatta keelhauled the field in the Classic, and in less time than it took the undefeated racemare to negotiate 1 1/4 miles, Jackson dialed up Jerry Moss's cell phone.

Moss, who co-owns Zenyatta with his wife, Ann, must have been en route to the winner's circle and didn't answer. "Exceptional!" Jackson said into his voice mail. "That was an exceptional performance."

Moss and Jackson are both Californians, but they may not cross paths again until the night of Jan. 18, when someone at a hotel in Beverly Hills opens an envelope and announces that either Moss's Zenyatta or Jackson's Rachel Alexandra has won Horse of the Year honors for 2009.

Horse of the Year announcements are frequently ho-hum anti-climaxes, but this one is so steeped in high drama and emotion that the Eclipse Awards' sponsoring partners - Daily Racing Form, the National Turf Writers Association and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association - considered a voting rule change that would permit the 275 or so voters to split their votes between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra. For years, split votes have been thrown out. The longshot possibility of the Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra vote resulting in co-champions died a narrow death when the Racing Form was the only faction that favored a change.

In an interview before that development, Jackson said that he preferred an all-or-nothing result to the Horse of the Year vote. No dead heats for the 79-year-old billionaire.

"You wouldn't have two Heisman Award winners, would you?" he said. "You wouldn't have co-winners of the Most Valuable Player Award in baseball. It would be silly, and wouldn't prove anything, if these two horses shared the title."

Jackson can talk this way because he feels Rachel Alexandra is the favorite, despite Zenyatta's finish with a flourish at Santa Anita. That tour de force left her with a 14-0 career record. If possible, voters are supposed to consider only their performances in 2009, when Rachel Alexandra went 8-0 and Zenyatta went 5-0.

"They're both great horses," Jackson said. "Zenyatta's win in the Classic was no surprise to me. I predicted a week before the race that she'd win."

Horse of the Year hullabaloo is old hat by now for Jackson, who owned a controlling interest in Curlin, national champion in 2007 and 2008. Since the Eclipse Awards began in 1971, one owner has won three straight Horse of the Year titles: Martha Gerry, all with Forego, from 1974 to 1976.

Jackson has no regrets about instructing his trainer, Steve Asmussen, to shut down on Rachel Alexandra after she defeated colts for the third time by winning the Woodward at Saratoga on Sept. 5. Jackson, hardly a candidate to do testimonials about synthetic tracks, spent most of the year denigrating artificial surfaces in general and Santa Anita's Pro-Ride layout in particular. He felt that Curlin's fourth-place finish in the 2008 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita could be blamed on Pro-Ride, although other analysts theorized Curlin was past his peak because of a grueling, season-long campaign.

"The health of the horse is more important than running in a big race," Jackson said. "I'm looking forward to Churchill Downs next year, when they'll get back to running the Breeders' Cup on dirt again, which is where it belongs. It's going to be fun running this filly again. We're going to see if she can beat herself."

Like Curlin, Rachel Alexandra will run as a 4-year-old. She'll begin the season with the rest of Asmussen's stock at the Fair Grounds, where she won the Fair Grounds Oaks for trainer Hal Wiggins in March. Jackson said no schedule has been mapped out, but it's possible the filly might run at the Fair Grounds again.

"New Orleans has the fairest track in the country," Jackson said. "The weather's good, and the food's not too bad down there, either."

Asked why Rachel Alexandra might prevail in the Horse of the Year vote, Jackson said: "You can't worry about what's in the hands of others, but I think she'll win. If they consider the facts, she'll win."

By rote, and in a staccato that a sportscaster might use to deliver a Sunday of NFL scores, Jackson can reel off the details of most of Rachel Alexandra's wins. He didn't buy her and turn her over to Asmussen until shortly after win No. 4, the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs. Reportedly, the purchase price was $7 million, although Jackson has never confirmed that.

"She did things that a female horse has never done," Jackson said. "The Kentucky Oaks, by more than 20 lengths, biggest margin in the history of the race. The Preakness, first filly to win it in 85 years. Mother Goose, biggest margin, breaking Ruffian's record, and fastest time ever. Haskell, beating the boys again, and second-biggest margin and only two-fifths of a second off track record. Woodward, first filly ever. In the Mother Goose, she was eased up, and still only missed Secretariat's [1 1/8-mile track record] by four ticks."

It would be easier for the voters, of course, if the two horses had gone head to head. But Zenyatta never came East, staying on synthetic tracks in California, and Rachel Alexandra never went West, running only on dirt.

"Even though I'm against the synthetics, there ought to be an Eclipse Award for best horse on synthetic, to go with best horse on dirt and best horse on turf, but you'd still have to choose between those three for best overall horse," Jackson said. "What racing needs is a major-league circuit, with races throughout the year for the various divisions and a point system for each division. You could have points for the jockeys and trainers, too, depending on what they won. There could be monetary awards for the horses with the most points. You'd still need a vote at the end for Horse of the Year, but the point standings would give the voters much more to go on than what they have now."

Jim McIngvale, a wealthy Texas horse owner and mattress salesman with a promotional flair, tried to bring Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta together for a $2 million match race, but nothing happened.

"That proposal was turned down by the other side before I even knew the offer was out there," said Jackson, referring to the Mosses. He said he doubted he would have green-lighted a match race, anyway.

Jackson said he believes there should be some sweeping changes made in the Eclipse Awards voting process.

"The racing secretaries shouldn't be voting," he said. "Not because they're prejudiced, but they look at racing differently. They're handicappers, concerned with odds and the betting aspects. When you talk about Horse of the Year, you should be concerned with who's the best horse, who did the most, and nothing else. Put the vote in the hands of the turf writers, and let it go at that. They're the most independent of those who vote now, and that would be the best way to go. But broaden the turf writers' group a little bit. There are some TV people, for instance, who are just as qualified to judge the sport, and they could be added to the mix."

Fire the racing secretaries as Eclipse voters? They've been part of the process since Day 1. It might take a, ahem, commissioner of racing, to bite that bullet.

Well, why not, Jackson says.

"There's a need for a commissioner," he said. "But it should be an outsider, not somebody who's already in racing. We've got enough consultants and advisers from the inside as it is.

"Racing needs a Judge Landis type to get its house in order," he said, referring to Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a federal judge hired to rejuvenate Major League Baseball after the Chicago "Black Sox" scandal in 1919.

It might be time for racing to get back in the commissioner business again, although twice the game went that route with marginal, if any, success. The first commissioner - a sports marketing executive who had seldom visited a racetrack before taking the job - was Brian McGrath, a $5 million misadventure. McGrath, who was paid an estimated $700,000 a year, was a Thoroughbred Racing Associations hire who left by mutual agreement in 1995. The TRA's member tracks, who couldn't afford him, asked McGrath at the outset to formulate promotions that might pay for the expenses of his office. One such idea, a national pick seven built around races at seven tracks, raised little revenue and was scrapped.

"Fair enforcement of uniform national drug laws would be No. 1 on [a commissioner's] agenda," Jackson said. "They might also look into changing the name of the Breeders' Cup while they were at it. It ought to be the Owners' Cup. It's the owners, who run and pay for the horses that the breeders give them, who are the backbone of the game. Right now, racing is strapped with a bad economic plan. They run their 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds, and then it's on to the breeding shed. John Henry was a gelding, but he's still a perfectly good example of how the good horses invigorate the fans. The fans loved John Henry for a long time. We need to keep our good ones, even the stud horses, around for a long time."