"Yes, sir," Benjamin says.
"Yes, I am."
"How do you mean that, sir?"
"There's a great future in plastics, Ben. Think about it. Will you think about it?"
I thought about it--that scene, that line--every time I came across Jess Jackson, who was 81 when he died the other day. Jackson abhorred the explosion of synthetic race tracks, from the time his Curlin was defeated on one at Santa Anita in 2008, and his slur for the artificial surfaces was "plastics." Jackson said he kept Rachel Alexandra out of the 2009 Breeders' Cup because of what had happened to Curlin the year before, and that intransigence cost racing the monumental showdown between Zenyatta and Jackson's filly, a classic confrontation that might have produced a race for a time capsule. Jackson wasn't always right, his bluster sometimes got in the way, but he came pretty damn close during the back-to-back Breeders' Cups at Santa Anita: Not one race over the main track was won by a horse who had prepped on dirt.
A squelch at Breeders' Cup time, overall Jackson's comparatively short run was still more prop than poison. He spent millions buying untried horses at auctions, but it was the purchases of already-tested horses that brought the headlines. And when Jackson saw a good horse, cost was never a consideration. After Curlin had run only one race, Jackson formed a partnership that acquired four-fifths of the future two-time Horse of the Year for $3.5 million. Rachel Alexandra had barely cooled out after her Kentucky Oaks victory when Jackson bought her for a reported $10 million. Two weeks later, she won the Preakness, the first filly in 85 years to bag that Triple Crown race, and she would beat males twice more en route to a Horse of the Year title.
Both times, Jackson installed those horses with his own trainer, Steve Asmussen. Good trainers who had nurtured them early were discarded, but this is the game and nobody plays it, as LeRoy Jolley once said, in short pants. Since Jackson had testified before Congress about the over-medication of American horses, Asmussen seemed like a strange choice; his record is punctuated with violations, one that drew a six-month suspension. "Steve has never lied to me," Jackson said in 2009. "There's a strict liability for the trainer for incidents that might be caused by others--deliberately or inadvertently." Jackson went on to say: "Why are (the veterinarians) allowed to continue to be licensed if they are in fact providing drugs?. . . I don't think Steve is the problem. I think the vet's the problem, and the industry attitude and enforcements are the problem."
Some of this added up to disconnect for me, but when Jackson wanted to, he backed up his words with punitive action. He sued one of his trainers and two bloodstock advisors, accusing them of double-dealing in the purchase of horses and a farm in Kentucky. In 2004, Jackson had no small part in the drafting of a code of ethics that governed horses bought at auction in Kentucky. Through it all, Jackson remained loyal to the game. "I love the horse," he said in an interview with Dede Biles in The Blood-Horse last year. "I love this industry, and I like the people in it. Even the crooks have character, just not good character. What I mean is that there are interesting characters in this industry, and many of them are hard-working people. There's a lot of color here. But I'm not as enamored of the color as much as the media are. I think the media promote the wrong ethics sometimes by idolizing people who are less than totally ethical."
When he died, victim of a rare form of skin cancer, he was also still at the top of the wine-making world, an endeavor that once accounted for wealth of $1.9 billion, according to Forbes magazine. He and his first of two wives turned an 80-acre walnut and pear orchard in Northern California into Kendall-Jackson, a winery that gave middle-priced chardonnay a good name.
Cancer treatments had turned him bald, but he covered that with a snappy tweed hat, and less than a year ago he didn't sound like his exit was near. "(It's not) melanoma, and it's not going to kill me," he told The Blood-Horse. "I know there are some people who might prefer I disappear, but I'm going to be around for a long time."
What I liked most about Jackson was his eagerness to tackle the questions, any of the questions. Whether I could have worked for him longer than five minutes, that was another matter. I interviewed him on the phone once, during a session when we were joined on a third line by one of his PR people. When the subject matter turned sensitive, she felt obligated to jump in.
"Will you please shut up?" Jess Jackson said. "I want to answer this, and I'm going to."