Texas Owner Calls It Quits

by Raymond Whelan

James Jackson stood at the summit of Thoroughbred racing during the first Saturday in May in 1999 when his 3-year-old gelding Valhol started in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. However, his memory of the Run for the Roses and what occurred a few weeks before have finally spurred the 49-year-old Texan to retire from racing.

"If I had to do it all over again, I would have withdrawn Valhol from (the Derby)," Jackson said. "It was really a tough deal. It hurt my family, and it hurt me. I knew I had a good horse, but there wasn't anyway in the world, with everything that happened going into the Kentucky Derby, that we could ever have got the best out of Valhol on that day."

Jackson, owner of Valhalla Farm in Rockdale, Texas, referred to the bitter controversy that erupted soon after Valhol broke his maiden in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Trained by Dallas Keen, Valhol won the race by 4 ½ lengths and earned $300,000, enough to make him eligible to enter the Kentucky Derby.

But five days later, Oaklawn stewards came before the Arkansas Racing Commission and said they had evidence jockey Billy Patin had carried an illegal electrical device -- sometimes called a battery, buzzer, or machine -- when he rode Valhol to victory in the Arkansas Derby.

Video replay of the race showed what appears to have been a small, dark box dropping away from the left shoulder of Valhol after he crossed the finish line. Furthermore, Oaklawn president Charles Cella told the commission one of his employees had recovered a device while searching the track.

Patin denied wrongdoing. but Oaklawn stewards suspended the rider for a year, and the commission extended the punishment to 2004. The commission also disqualified Valhol as the Arkansas Derby winner and voted to redistribute his earnings, an action that could have barred the horse from running in the Kentucky Derby.

However, just days before the race, Pulaski County Circuit Judge John Plegge ruled Valhol was still entitled to the Arkansas Derby purse, because Oaklawn could not prove Jackson and Keen were guilty of wrongdoing during the race. Jackson said he doesn't necessarily think Patin did anything wrong, either.

"Billy was riding bare handed," Jackson said. "He didn't have a glove on him. They couldn't get any fingerprints off the thing found by the track employee. They couldn't get any DNA off it. My horse won by 4 ½ lengths that day, and no bolt of lightning up his fanny would have made him win by 4 ½ lengths. He was by far the best horse that day. We were railroaded, point blank and simple."

Valhol went on to finish 15th in the Kentucky Derby, 10 ¼ lengths behind the winner, Charismatic.

"After that happened, there was no way in the world I could do my job correctly," Jackson said. "I had to take the shame and go from racetrack to racetrack and still have people pointing fingers and accusing me of wrongdoing. There was nothing I could do about it. But I'm not taking the blame for something I had no part of. I'm not built that way."

Officially, Valhol (still in training with Keen) receives credit for having won five of 18 starts -- the Whirlaway, the Tenacious and the Diplomat Way handicaps at Fair Grounds, and two allowance races. His total earnings of $380,350 do not include the Arkansas Derby.

Jackson now plans to sell most of his 40 horses, including Allen's Oop, the 2000 New Orleans Handicap winner.

"It's time to sit down and look at something a little bit more realistic," he said. "My biggest problem is, I've never gotten over the deal in Arkansas, and I don't ever want to be put in a position to have to face it again."

Jackson doesn't plan to sell Valhol.

"If someone comes up and offers good money for him, it would be a different story," he said. "But he's six going on seven, and I don't picture many people wanting to come around and do that. Valhol was a good one for me. The horse brought a lot of fun to my family and me. I still have him, and I'll probably keep him until the day that rascal dies."