Friday, 8 May 2009

Could Jess Be Our Savior?

The racing world suddenly looks several shades brighter since Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables, no doubt inspired by my repeated whining about the path lined out for her, purchased Rachel Alexandra. And things got even better when today it was announced that the standout filly will be pointed to the Preakness next, with Calvin Borel aboard. According to Jackson, Borel’s decision “came down to the facts that he knows and loves this horse, that he knows how to get the most from her and he knows how to win”. That he knows she’s the better horse compared to the Derby winner might have been a factor too.

Like most people, I’m not exactly euphoric about seeing great horses in the care of Steve Asmussen, but having this horse owned by Stonestreet is about the best thing that could happen to the sport. RA was looking to be a lost opportunity for racing, now she could become the sport’s best (and fastest) PR campaign.

With Curlin, Jackson gave the racing world an almost forgotten sensation – the sight of a Horse of the Year being campaigned like a Champion. Curlin took on all comers in Dubai, California, Kentucky and New York. He won a lot and lost a few, but his defeats came because Stonestreet didn’t duck a challenge and never pampered their horse by entering races they couldn’t lose. I loved how Jackson pointed his horse to challenge the world’s best turf horses in the Arc. It ultimately turned out Curlin didn’t like the turf, but even so it assured that fans got an exciting season out of the HOTY. Most owners would have rushed him off to stud or, like Ghostzapper, campaigned him in races tilted towards his interests, all the while patting themselves on their back for how great a gesture it was to show up at all. I will always take a horse that lost a couple of big challenges over one that avoided them in the first place. If this decade has produced one true Champion, Curlin was that.

I also loved how Jackson challenged Big Brown to a pre-BC match, first in the Woodward, then in the JC Gold Cup. Big Brown’s owners, IEAH, on the other hand weren’t that sporting. Their attitude is typical for most of today’s big-time owners: seeing a great challenge as nothing more than a great risk to their horse’s value at stud. As long as the breeding industry is the tail wagging the dog, this strategy makes sense. After all, Big Brown was syndicated for over $50 million, amazing for a horse that battled soundness issues all through its career.

Fans of the sport can only hope for owners who put sportsmanship first and financial considerations second. Right now, no major owner represents that spirit better than Jess Jackson.

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