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Q&A: Jess Jackson
Successful entrepreneur whose Kendall-Jackson wines are wildly popular, he is the owner of Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, who collectively have captured the last three (2007-09) titles as Horse of the Year
Birthdate: Feb. 18, 1930, in Los Angeles.
Family: wife, Barbara Banke; daughters Katherine and Julia; son, Christopher; daughters Jennifer and Laura from a previous marriage
Got into racing because: "The joy of the sport. I was around horses since I was 8 or 9. My ancestry is cowboys and Texans and Westerners. Horses were a part of their life. I remember going to the Texas Centennial in 1936. My grandparents insisted I go. We were constantly in Texas, and New Mexico, and California, where I grew up. I loved the horse. It was a combination of the love of the horse and handicapping; I was pretty good, in fact. The joy of the sport brought me back. I returned to it in my retirement. It's been a lifelong pleasure and quest. I love the breeding side of it. I'm very active. We have 100 mares in Florida and Kentucky. I had to pull my wife into it. Now I have to restrain her. The fun of winning and having Hot Dixie Chick has gotten her addicted."
How long had you been looking at Rachel Alexandra before you purchased her following her win in the Kentucky Oaks? "I tried to buy her before the Oaks. Her owners declared she wasn't for sale. After the Oaks, I saw her immense potential, so we made another effort and the price was pretty high. I never did agree to pay that much for a horse before."
Did you imagine, then, that she would achieve all she did in 2009? "No one could have predicted that. Race by race, we tested her, and she kept passing the tests. We knew she was world-class. But we couldn't have imagined all that."
You made a similar private purchase with Curlin in 2007, but he had run just once. What was it about Curlin's first race that made you think he could be special? "I use John Moynihan, one of the best bloodstock agents in the business. It was Curlin's ease in that race. He wasn't pressed; he was looking at the fans in the stands. You just knew he had huge potential beyond what that race showed, which was plenty. He was born just off my farm in Kentucky, at Fares Farm, 50 yards from where we had some residents as rentals. I did notice him when he was growing up. He had a huge girth and chest."
So you were aware of him long before he raced? "We reviewed all the foals we had, and all the horses in their barn at Fares Farm. He had an injury as a 2-year-old. We passed on him at a sale. I regret that now. It would have been less expensive."
Who would win a match race between Curlin and Rachel? "Curlin. Rachel would take him on but he'd break her heart. Don't tell her that. He lost by 3 1/2 or 4 lengths in time faster than Zenyatta in the next Breeders' Cup. Curlin was amazing. That wasn't his best race. He was getting tired toward end of the season, and he didn't like that track. Not that I don't love Rachel. That's just my honest opinion."
Do you expect to breed them to one another when Rachel is done racing? "Sure. Eventually. Hopefully she'll stay sound and perform all year. Hopefully in a triple tiara with Zenyatta."
Rachel is nearing her 2010 debut. Do you have any predictions for how she'll do this year? "She has been off for six months. We've accelerated her training. There's been rain. That interferes with it. The track gets flooded. It's hard to bring a horse around without weather interference. Steve Asmussen is doing a masterful job. We think she'll only be 80 percent [this weekend] compared to what her conditioning will be by the time we get to the Apple Blossom. But it's all up to Mother Nature and the weather."
Fans have been clamoring for a race between Rachel and Zenyatta for months. Now that it is only weeks away, can you describe your feelings toward that hoped-for race? "They are two horses both of destiny. I'd like to have a triple competition [before] the Breeders' Cup. We could do it with the boys in the Stephen Foster, the ladies in the Beldame. There's plenty of places to run - Churchill, Monmouth, Saratoga, Belmont, and Arkansas. I love the sport. I love the competition. We stretch horses when they are good and back off when their health is involved. What Rachel does in her New Orleans prep will tell us a lot about her readiness. It takes time for athletes at this level to get to peak condition. Zenyatta never just backed off. Rachel is still a little green at getting back in shape. Athletes train for years for the Olympics. Horses should be given the same consideration. You know I want to race. I'm hoping Zenyatta does, too. [Saturday's] race will determine much. We want to use it to tighten her up."
How instrumental were Oaklawn Park and Charles Cella in putting this race together? "Mr. Cella very generously has given us a forum to have it happen. I applaud and admire that. My concern is the health of the horses. Rachel has to overcome the six-month lapse. We have the harder issue. I was not involved in any way agreeing to lengthen the race to a mile and an eighth. It puts more stress on Rachel. The longer the race, the more the conditioning. I was involved in trying to push the race back another week, because every week is critical. We've accelerated her training, but we're being judicious about her condition and health. We want to be there. That said, it's up to Mother Nature. I'm willing to walk away from a $5 million shot for the health of the horse."
At the Eclipse Awards, you made a very gracious speech praising both Rachel and Zenyatta. Unlike the zealous fans of both horses, it seems you have a great appreciation for your rival: "I really do. [The fans in] both camps get too emotionally invested to step back and look at it with perspective. But these are two of the greatest female horses to ever run. You've got to compliment Zenyatta. I hope she runs well in her comeback. Both have earned their place in history."
You've been a fan of racing for decades. Who are your favorite horses over the years? "I was an early fan of Seabiscuit. I liked Rex Ellsworth's Swaps, little Determine. I came at it from the West Coast position. Round Table, Silky Sullivan. I really admired Native Dancer, Secretariat, Ruffian."
Can you compare the challenges in being successful in racing with being successful in the winemaking business? Is it harder to be an entrepreneur in racing than in winemaking? "Racing is easier in one respect. There's an objective criteria in racing -- the winner crosses the wire first. Mother Nature has to work for great wines, and for athletic condition and the genes of the horses. The similarity is that, be it wine or horses, we want to get a luxury product that's a winner."
You've been outspoken about changes that you believe need to be made in the sport, particularly in regards to agents. Do you believe progress has been made? Is there more to do? "Progress has been made, yes. My team went to the Kentucky legislature and tried to get legislation through, which we did, that penalizes dual agents, opens transparency. At auctions, false bidding should be addressed. There needs to be transparency with medications. I'm against Lasix and Bute. It's an abuse of the horses that the rest of the world won't tolerate. Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia -- racing there does not allow Lasix, does not allow Bute. It's hay, oats, and water. We need to clean up our act up. Europeans snicker at us."
What other areas of the sport do you believe are the most critically important to improve? "We need a league, a commissioner, uniform enforcement of racing, and a schedule that fans and the media can count on. It's always problematic with horses, but something like a Triple Crown for older horses, a lot of races. There could be a gaming side of it where you could bet on which trainer or jockey or horse would earn the most points (in the series)."
One area where you were outspoken last year was your not wanting to run Rachel in the Breeders' Cup because, as you put it, it was being run on "plastic" at Santa Anita. Looking back, do you have any second-thoughts on what you said, or not running her in the Breeders' Cup? "The tradition at Santa Anita was dirt. All the records of the great horses were on dirt. Santa Anita is like Churchill Downs and Belmont and Saratoga and Del Mar. It's a jewel, a priceless jewel to Thoroughbred racing. I would prefer to have dirt so I could run in my native state. I was born in Los Angeles. I want to compete here. But California racing is sideways right now. It doesn't have its act together. The fact they don't have a great dirt course hurts California in the Triple Crown. You can't prepare on dirt in California. It takes several months for horses to convert safely from dirt to synthetic. We didn't have the time given her racing record. Curlin, I did it more for the sport. It was the end of a long campaign. He went to Dubai. Rachel, she ran 13 times in 12 months. That's enough. Particularly when she exhausted herself against males. This year, we're pointing for the Breeders' Cup. I'd love to run on dirt. I didn't want to take a chance with Rachel. Risk a champion for that transition and possible injury? Curlin couldn't get any traction. Having learned that lesson once, I don't make the same mistake twice."
Despite having owned the Horse of the Year the last three years, you have yet to win an Eclipse Award as champion owner. Does that bother you? "It's reality. There are vested interests quite opposed to what I'm trying to do in reforming the industry. I'm outspoken. I challenge a lot of people who have an interest that is contrary to change."
What else do you hope to accomplish in racing? "I'd like to elevate owners to have more informed owners participating in things like Breeders' Cup committees, racing schedules, medication issues. I'm not arguing for me. Hell, I'm 80. For the health of the sport, it's up to others. Owners and tracks should be equal partners. The tracks are the theater, the horses are the performers, and the owners speak for them. A league, with broadcast partners, would enlarge purses. It would bring more owners in and enliven fan participation."