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.

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