April 21, 2011

Jess Jackson Dies -- Horse Racing loses an Advocate

It is reported that Jess Jackson (who at age 9 actually saw Seabiscuit race, creating a lifelong fascination with horses) passed away this morning at his Sonoma County, California home after courageously battling melanoma cancer for a number of years. He was 81 years young and his passion and zest for life (especially horses) was displayed several times over the past few years in triumphs with Champions Curlin and Rachel Alexandra.

For the record I must state that I have previously been critical of Mr. Jackson's handling of Rachel Alexandra in her 2010 campaign. But the fact is that he was primarily responsible for setting the stage for her historic 2009 perfect nine race season in the first place that created so much positive attention and ushered in countless new fans to racing that were desperately needed (many of which were female, critically important in a predominantly "man's sport").

Never having personally met this man, I feel a humbling sense of loss today for several reasons. Most notably, I could tell that this proud man was struggling with the symptoms of cancer recently since I lost my own father to this disease last January. Yet he had the courage to never complain about his physical limitations or struggles and didn't let it stop him from ambitious journeys with first Curlin and then Rachel Alexandra, where he was present for nearly every race.

Also let me remind all that Mr. Jackson was particularly concerned with making positive changes in our equine community and filed lawsuits that were eventually settled in his apparent favor with multiple agents and parties concerning the transparency of commissions and fees in horse auctions (should sound familiar to you financial folks!). Having just purchased a two-year old at public auction myself, it's reassuring that someone has taken "the institution" to task and criticized the complex relationships and under the table payments with regards to horse transactions between multiple parties (consignor, buyers and sellers agents, trainer, etc.). This unscrupulous behavior by more than just a few parties has kept countless potential owners - and dollars - from entering our beloved sport.

Here is a quote on the topic from Arthur Hancock, Jr., a famed Kentucky breeder, published in a 2006 New York Times article by Joe Drape. "We don't do that and have lost business because of it. When you tell them no, you understand that they are never coming back to buy one of your horses. Honest sellers can't compete with those who cheat. I'm a fourth-generation horseman, and I'm ashamed that a winemaker has to clean up our sport."

Speaking of wine, Jess Jackson (like most T'bred owners) entered our sport only after amassing a very large fortune building a wine empire from scratch. He revolutionized American vintners with the release of Kendall-Jackson's Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay in the early 1980s. A couple of my favorite quotes from Mr. Jackson follow... "Wine is a part of our cultural heritage. It has always been the traditional partner with food. Wine celebrates friends, family, and love – all of the best things in life." “From day one we have been a family-owned and family-run business. It is a distinction that is rapidly becoming a rarity in our industry. Our family culture is built on the time-honored principles of hard work, integrity, and uncompromising desire for quality and the long-term stewardship of the land.” Left to cherish the memory of this titan of agriculture are his wife and partner in Stonestreet Farms and Stables, Barbara Banke, five children; Jennifer Hartford, Laura Giron, Katie Jackson, Julia Jackson and Christopher Jackson, and two grandchildren.

A sad start to my day indeed, which happens to be my wedding anniversary. But perhaps tonight during a nice candlelit dinner with my wife, better memories will surface. Memories like that special September day in 2009 when Jess and I were two of the 31,171 fans in attendance to witness Rachel's perfection - a day that perhaps even Jess counted as one of his best. Thus, the picture you see in this article is how I will remember this man - a jubilant champion! Especially since I am in the background just left of his raised trophy. And tonight I will raise a toast to Jess (and to my wife, of course) with what else - a glass of Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve! Godspeed my friend.

April 8, 2011

Derby Top 10 - April 8 update

Top 10 removals: I will be removing Stay Thirsty and Sweet Ducky due to poor performance and forced to scratch Premier Pegasus and To Honor and Serve due to injuries - all within past two days! At this point, I'm not sure I can even find four new horses to meet my quota, but I'll give it the good old college try...

1) Dialed In – In my last update I stated, "Expect another first or second finish in the Florida Derby in spite of pace to keep him as my top choice heading into Louisville." At this point, I would almost rather he lost the close decision in the Florida Derby to 70-1 shot Shackleford. Then even more skeptics would be saying for two races in a row he wasn't good enough to beat long-shot winners. But if you've heard me say it once, you've heard it a thousand times from me that "pace makes the race." In spite of apparent legit fractions, the track was clearly displaying a speed bias as the only horse in the 8 horse field who gained ground from the 6th to 9th furlong was Dialed In, a remarkable statistic! With the unprecedented changes in my top 10 list this year with the long-shot winners and numerous injuries, this guy has reassured me why he's been my top pick all along. He may need that extra week or two prior to The Derby to recoup from his furios stretch drive.

2) Santiva – Still waiting for next weekend's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on Polytrack, where he has performed well as a 2YO. Likely the most versatile colt heading towards Louisville in that he has run well pressing the pace but has also circled the field to win. Should be a small price in his final prep and I'm tempted to make a large exacta wager and hope for yet another huge long-shot to key a nice exotic payoff!

3) Uncle Mo – A bizarre Derby trail could become a historically insane year if 'Mo is upstaged on Saturday. He is less susceptible to upset since he is usually the controlling speed that can prevent another horse let alone on a dawdling pace. Very few 3YO's can withstand the rigors of The Derby without having been tested and the undeniable fact is that this one has had the easiest route to Louisville, possibly ever! If The Factor runs well at Oaklawn next weekend and goes Derby bound that could throw a wrench in Mo's plans if he's not able to rate. He very much reminds me of a Quality Road type - uber talent with pure speed, but these types sometime come undone in big races.

4) Mucho Macho Man – Didn't have a great Louisiana Derby but the pace didn't really set up for his stretch run. Disturbing that he got passed that easily by 36-1 shot maiden winner Nehro for the place, but sometimes closers too close to the lead will run evenly. The bottom (dam) side of his breeding has plenty of stamina with names like Mr. Prospector, Nijinsky II and Hoist The Flag. That gives this grandson of Holy Bull (who sired Giacomo - ’05 Derby winner) a nice 2.43 dosage index rating, which is picture-perfect for improving chances of winning at 10 furlongs. With this breeding advantage at longer distances, I'm keeping him relatively high on the list.

5) Astrology - Not sure why Asmussen decided to wait so long for his unveiling, perhaps he knew he could pick up enough earnings in two preps. Sharp second in the 800K Sunland Derby (don't laugh, Mine That Bird went that route!) after pressing a very fast pace and fighting gamely in the stretch off a four month layoff at 1 1/8 miles. Just read today where A.P. Indy has been pensioned from stud duty due to infertility and how appropriate would it be for one of his youngest sons to get the chefs-de-race sire on the board in the world's greatest horse race.

6) Jaycito – Baffert had to scratch from the Santa Anita Derby this weekend due to a lingering hoof abcess, but will send him to the Coolmore Lexington Stakes just two weeks prior to The Derby. I actually like this race pattern, as opposed to sitting out 6 weeks - especially with such a fresh horse. Typically comes from the clouds so he will need an average or better pace in Derby, but with these long-shots going forward, several may decide if they can't win The Derby they want to say the led "a few laps" and make the pace hotter.

7) Archarcharch – Still not convinced that the Oaklawn group is much to talk about this year, but he backed up his Southwest Stakes win with a gutsy performance racing closer to the lead than usual while being nipped for second by Caleb’s Posse in the Rebel. Should appreciate a little more ground that he’s soon to get and with a few races under his belt should be as tight as possible leading into May. Another very hot sire at the moment, with Arch siring Blame - last year's BC Classic winner who got the better of Zenyatta at the same Derby distance.

8)Silver Medallion - This year's turf/synthetic specialist who is trying conventional dirt for the first time in the SA Derby. Smartly bred grandson of Silver Deputy out of a Stalwart mare could be dangerous this weekend and again on May 7th if he takes to the dirt, as his breeding suggests he could do. I'm a big fan of the underrated Silver Deputy - Deputy Minister blood and this one could verify my hunch.

9) Anthony's Cross - Well raced as a 2YO, he has switched results with a couple others on this list but seems to be doing well at the moment. If you watch his gutsy Robert Lewis Stakes victory, it's hard to see how any horse could ever run by this guy. Should run well in the SA Derby as he's proven he likes the track and could punch his ticket to the big dance with a win, place, or possibly even show effort.

10)Brethren - Was back and forth between this one and Alternation - the Von Hemel Distorted Humor colt I was backing in The Rebel who flipped in the stall and had to scratch. Brethren's older brother Super Saver had a poor race at Tampa Bay Downs last spring also before running second in the ARK Derby and then taking the roses, so that's good enough for my last spot.

Enjoy the Derby preps this weekend and let's continue to pull for Uncle Mo to win handily to set the stage in Louisville.

Happy Racing!