08/27/2008 11:00PM

Miscast in role of racing's villain

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - In an era when most owners retire top horses hastily to cash in on their value at stud, Jess Jackson has behaved like an old-fashioned sportsman. Even after Curlin was named Horse of the Year in 2007, Jackson kept his colt in training and planned an ambitious 4-year-old campaign that will include Saturday's prestigious Woodward Stakes at Saratoga.

Since he plunged into horse racing five years ago, Jackson has not only invested tens of millions of dollars, he has become a forceful campaigner for integrity in the game. He testified before Congress this summer, urging federal help in controlling the sport's drug problem. He vociferously protested the dishonest practices that often accompany the sale of horses - one of the sport's dirty little secrets - and persuaded Kentucky's legislature to give buyers more protection. An outsider might assume that the industry would be grateful for his passion.

Instead, Jackson is strongly disliked in many segments of the business. He has been described as a billionaire bully. A racing executive says, "He's got an ego bigger than the racetrack. He rubs almost everybody the wrong way."

Ray Paulick, editor of the online Paulick Report, says the resentment to Jackson is partly because he is a newcomer challenging the old guard. Paulick observed: "There are people who say, 'If Jess Jackson is for this, then I'm against it.' "

Though Jackson didn't get into racing seriously till 2003, he always had a keen interest in horses. His ancestors had been born on the famed King Ranch and managed it. He himself grew up on a farm with cattle and horses.

"It had always been a dream of mine to have a great horse like Curlin," he said. "But life gets in the way. I was born in the Depression and I've always worked very hard. I didn't have time to do what I wanted to do."

Jackson practiced law for 35 years, but the turning point of his life was his purchase in 1974 of a modest 80-acre orchard in California. Jackson began selling its grapes to local wineries, and from that enterprise grew the Kendall-Jackson Winery, one of the most successful wine producers in the world. The company now owns more than 12,000 acres of California vineyards and sells more than four million cases of wine a year, enabling Jackson to amass a fortune that Forbes Magazine estimates at $2.2 billion.

When Jackson turned 70, he announced his decision to retire from day-to-day work at Kendall-Jackson. Within a year he unretired and became CEO again. Passivity is not part of his nature. When he belatedly entered the horse racing business, he did so like a whirlwind.

Although breeding Thoroughbreds is a venture that takes years, or generations, to reach fruition, and Jackson was already 73, he said, "I decided to get involved in all phases of the game. Breeding is part of the joy of being involved in the sport."

He purchased farms in Kentucky and Florida; at one auction in 2003 he bought 95 horses - mostly broodmares - for $22 million. When rich newcomers start spending money on this level, plenty of people in the industry view them as lambs waiting to be fleeced. Using an agent, Jackson bought a mare privately for $750,000, only to learn later that the owner had sold it for $600,000. Jackson investigated and found similar discrepancies in many of his horse purchases. He had been fleeced, but (unlike many wealthy buyers in the same position) was unwilling to behave like a lamb. He sued the agent, Emmanuel de Seroux, and launched a public fight against corruption in horse sales.

Jackson's lawyers descended on Kentucky, and persuaded the state legislature to pass a law governing the actions of agents in horse transactions. De Seroux paid $3.5 million to settle Jackson's lawsuit. But Jackson's full-scale assault ruffled a lot of Kentuckians. Even de Seroux's lawyer made his client sound like a victim instead of a cheater. He said in a statement: "The wrath of billionaire Jackson was vented in a well funded effort to destroy Emmanuel de Seroux professionally and personally."

Jackson wasn't surprised by the hostile reaction. "Horse trading has a tradition of cheating the new entrants," he said. "If you have false bids on a horse, if you have your buddy bid up the price, everybody is profiting from the tradition; the auction houses keep getting higher revenue. The whole culture was living off the silence [about the illegal practices]."

Jackson has been just as outspoken on another of the sport's touchiest subjects: drugs. When he learned that Curlin had been treated with steroids as a 3-year-old, he ordered trainer Steve Asmussen to discontinue the practice; he told Asmussen and his other trainers that he would independently have his own horses tested for the presence of drugs. Jackson testified before Congress that some federal oversight is necessary because the sport has "no competent central governing body." And he urged that the industry policy toward drugs should be "zero tolerance" - no steroids, no Butazolidin, no Lasix.

These positions, too, rankle many people in the sport, because industry leaders shudder at the prospect of federal intervention and horsemen believe that liberal medication policies are necessary to keep the game going. Jackson dismisses the horsemen's arguments. "Trainers," he said, "have been conned into believing that drugs are necessary by the pushers - the veterinarians."

Some of Jackson's ideas are questionable - such as his proposal that the Triple Crown be changed to a series for 4-year-olds - and they give ammunition to critics who say he's a neophyte who doesn't know enough about the game. But his demand for more integrity in the sport ought to be unassailable. Moreover, every fan ought to applaud his belief that great racehorses should race instead of being hustled off to stud.

Jackson bought an 80 percent interest in Curlin after the colt won his racing debut last year, then watched him go on to win the Preakness, the Breeders' Cup Classic, and the Eclipse Award. He knew that Curlin could earn more money this year as a stallion than as a racehorse, but Jackson said he wanted to demonstrate that the colt possesses durability and stamina that set him apart from most fast and fragile modern racehorses. Curlin won the world's richest race, the $6 million Dubai World Cup, in the spring. Jackson aimed to send him to France this fall for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe until a loss in a U.S. grass race proved that running on turf is not his best game. Instead, the colt's next objective is the Woodward, where a victory would make him the No. 2 money-winning Thoroughbred of all time.

Curlin should be able to surpass Cigar, the No. 1 horse on the list, before the year is over. Jackson will relish this achievement, of course, but he surely gets as much satisfaction from the very fact that he has campaigned Curlin as a 4-year-old and has once again challenged the sport's orthodoxy.

(c) 2008, The Washington Post