Owning the most talked-about horse at the Dubai World Cup and an estate worth nearly $2 billion (Dh7.34bn), you would almost expect Jess Jackson to exude a cockiness that many in his position are often afflicted by.
But when the mountainous 78-year-old addresses the gathered media at the post position draw at the Madinat Jumeirah, it’s his warmth and genuine love of horses that resonate strongest.
He is in the emirate to cheer on his most prized asset, Curlin. Hot favourite for the richest race in the world, and reigning American Horse of the Year, today the thoroughbred has the potential to become one of the true greats of the racing world. And that matters more to the man from Kentucky than his bank balance.
“I want to give back to racing,” says the amiable and affable Jackson. “Racing has given me a lifetime of joy and having a thoroughbred like Curlin means we can give back to the racing community and let people see a champion perform.
“We want racing to be what it once was in the golden era, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. We need to have the stars and, for the stars to endure, they have to win. Many other great horses, such as John Henry and Cigar, were great horses that ran over a long career and the public need that. The public need heroes,” said the proud owner of Curlin.
When Jackson talks about horses he has a glint in his eye and a wide, unwavering smile. A keen sportsman in his college days, he understands the worth of witnessing sports stars at their peak, and has transferred that sentiment to racing.
“I love horse racing and have done my whole life,” he explains. “For me, the thoroughbred horse is a thing of beauty; there’s no greater athlete. I’ve played rugby, American football, basketball, football and ran the track, so I love an athlete. And I have an eye for a horse that falls into that category.”
That’s evident, as his decision to buy Curlin for $3.5 million just more than a year ago has been vindicated. The four-year-old has wracked up some impressive victories since the two joined forces, with last October’s impressive Breeders’ Cup win signalling his potential for greatness.
The prize money accumulated in the past year has set Curlin well on his way to beating Cigar’s career earnings record, but Jackson is unconcerned about the financial repercussions of winning on Saturday, focusing instead on keeping his prized possession fit and healthy.
Many horses are now pushed to race before they are ready, something that clearly irks the man behind the flourishing Jackson Wine Estates. Curlin was wrapped in cotton wool as a two-year-old, held back from tougher races, and is now reaping the rewards.
“I think a lot of horses break down because they’re run too early,” says Jackson. “It’s like putting teenagers in the NFL or NBA before they’re fully grown.
“You need the bone, you need the tissue, you need the ligaments and you need the stamina to compete.
“I’m hoping to show the world by example that you can hold a horse until three. I want Curlin to show that you can run at three, you can run at four. We can have classic races like the Dubai World Cup show the ability of the horse that’s older and more mature.
“My one true hope for Curlin is that he will help establish a change in American attitude towards stamina and distance, and overcome the economic imperative of retiring a horse too soon and not letting them develop.”
Now residing in California, the man recorded at 428th in the Forbes 2006 Rich List seems as much in awe of his thoroughbred as those attending the track this week.
“Here’s Curlin; you can see his size, his musculature; he’s the Arnold Schwarzenegger of horses. And yet he has this huge stamina and desire and speed, together with durability and distance, and that’s why we fell in love with him when we first saw him.
“Pound for pound the horse is the most amazing, graceful being. Can you imagine going on a left turn with a few 100 pounds on your back and all that weight on something no bigger than your wrist?
“The horse itself is an amazing animal, there’s no athlete quite the same in the animal kingdom.”
And protecting that athlete is paramount to Jackson. He believes the popularity of gambling in the West can have an indirect effect on the well-being of the animals and says he’d prefer to see betting removed from racing altogether. “We’re trying to lift the sport up out of gaming, out of gambling and provide a theatre for the public to enjoy one of the most gorgeous athletic competitions imaginable. Why put extra weight on horses because someone wants to gamble on different odds than what the horse is capable of?” he argues. “A true thoroughbred champion will be determined by equal weight in equal conditions in the Dubai World Cup or the Breeders’ Cup.
“Not by putting 30 extra pounds on one horse and 15 on another. That simply doesn’t work. It’s unfair to the horse and it doesn’t tell you who’s the best.”
Jackson jokes that he’s giving too much away to those gathered around him as they listen intently like children listening to granddad’s old tales; his enthusiasm and knowledge of the sport keep us entertained.
There’s little doubt, though, that it is he who will be the most excited at Nad Al Sheba when Curlin gets set in the stalls this afternoon – and it won’t have anything to do with the $3.6m (Dh13.2m) winner’s prize.
Jess Jackson is full of praise for the contribution His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai has made to horseracing.
“The Sheikh’s probably the most influential factor of ethics and financial support for the thoroughbred worldwide,” he said.
“There have been others before him, but he’s taking the lead now. And he’s not doing it for the greed of it, he’s doing it for the thoroughbred and the betterment of racing and the horse. Fortunately he has the wherewithal to honour the horse and provide a venue like this.
“We admire him because his ethics and his economic contribution to the industry are irreplaceable. You have to love the horse, and I know he does.
“Part of us being here is to thank him for his contribution to the world of racing and particularly to the breeding and racing in the United States. The contribution he’s made to the thoroughbred is obvious, he’s to be honoured for that, and we’re here in part as a salute to him.”
Curlin groomed to win at Dubai World Cup