Wine Tycoon Jackson Takes Bluegrass by Storm

Wine Tycoon Jackson Takes Bluegrass by Storm
Photo: Louise E. Reinagel
Winery tycoon Jess Jackson, right, with trainer Bruce Headley.
Published in the Feb. 26, 2005 issue of The Blood-Horse
In an Associated Press article published last year, one of Jess Jackson's employees called the California wine tycoon a whirlwind. But based on what's been happening in Central Kentucky lately, that description was an understatement. Jackson, 75, is roaring through the Bluegrass with the strength of a Category 5 hurricane.

Last November, Jackson blew into Keeneland's breeding stock sale and purchased more than 80 horses through Narvick International. He also bought one mare, Argentine group I winner Refine (in foal to Golden Missile  ), in his own name. Jackson's most expensive acquisition was Got Koko, a grade I-winning Signal Tap mare who sold for $1.5 million. Jackson also bought Danzig's Beauty, the dam of successful stallion Distorted Humor  , for $350,000 while she was carrying a Lemon Drop Kid   foal.

More recently, Jackson scooped up one of Lexington's showcase properties, paying $17.46 million for 469-acre Buckram Oak Farm, owned by Mahmoud Fustok and his family. After closing the deal in early February, Jackson, inspired by his middle name, chose Stonestreet Farm for the nursery's new moniker.

In addition, Jackson has been buying interests in or seasons to some of Kentucky's top stallions and sire prospects. He owns 80% of 2001 Remsen Stakes (gr. II) winner Saarland, who stands at John Sikura's Hill 'n' Dale Farms, and also has part of Awesome Again  , who covers mares at Frank Stronach's Adena Springs Kentucky. Besides those stallions, Jackson's mares are being bred this year to such sires as A.P. Indy, Seeking the Gold, and Empire Maker.

"We may have a Thoroughbred farm in California later, and we'll probably have something in Ocala, too," said Jackson of his rapidly expanding horse empire.

According to Dan Hall, who oversees Stronach's Kentucky farm operation, his boss is in negotiations to sell Jackson property in Florida that once was the main focus of Stronach's Adena Springs South venture. Stronach has nearly completed moving his Florida operation to approximately 5,000 other acres in the Ocala area.

"The horse is the most athletic and beautiful animal that is compatible with man," said Jackson, who owns approximately 150 Thoroughbreds and will be looking for more at auctions this year. "I have always loved horses. I'm a 14th generation American, and my family has had horses all the way back to my ancestors in Rhode Island, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, and California. My grandmother was born on King Ranch (in Texas), and her mother was as well. So were her father and her grandfather. Farming is a part of my life and my heritage."

According to Forbes magazine, Jackson has an estimated net worth of $1.8 billion. He was ranked No. 124 on the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in America in 2004, and he was No. 310 on the magazine's ranking of the word's wealthiest people.

A big man with a thick thatch of white hair, Jackson, by his own count, has pursued seven different careers during his lifetime. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, law school, he was a prominent attorney in the San Francisco area specializing in land use and property rights issues in his younger days. His other ventures included real estate development and computer programming and leasing. But Jackson is best known in the business world today as the founder of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, described by Forbes as "one of America's most valuable wineries." According to the magazine, Kendall-Jackson shipped 4.5-million cases of wine in 2003 and had $410 million in sales.

In a telephone interview Feb. 11, Jackson told The Blood-Horse he envisions a Thoroughbred venture that is similar to Kendall-Jackson in terms of its quality.

"Even though we're going to grow, this is not about volume; it's more about quality," Jackson said. "We want to be in the quality end of the market, just as we are in the wine business. Kendall-Jackson is in the top 5% of the world's wines in terms of quality, perhaps even higher. We also have a group of Artisan and Estates wines that are in the top one-half of 1%, according to Robert Parker, the world's most famous wine critic. We plan to do the same thing with horses."

Jackson plans to sell the produce of his mares at public auction and will also race some of the offspring.

"I'm in this as a prospect for a successful business, so I have to look at the best way to realize an economic return on my investment," Jackson said. "My primary interest is and always has been in breeding. Racing is just coincidental. I find the breeding and pedigrees to be very challenging. If we sell and the horses don't hit their reserves, we'll keep them and race them. I would hope the yearling and the 2-year-olds sales would take most of our stock, but I also want to race to qualify the horses that I keep for breeding--both for mare replacement and as sire prospects. I'm going to make a business out of it if I can, but first of all, I'm going to have a lot of fun. My wife (Barbara Banke) is involved, and so are other family members."

While Jackson's recent buying spree might look like the sudden whim of a wealthy man, he's not a newcomer to the Thoroughbred game. Years ago, he raced horses with an uncle, Dr. I.B. Ballenger, whose runners included homebred Ben Turner, winner of the Baja California Handicap and Caliente Derby in 1964, and Roman Heiress, who finished second in the 1965 Hollywood Lassie Stakes.

Jackson said he left racing because "I got too busy." He didn't return to the sport until 2003. That year, he and California trainer Bruce Headley purchased the most expensive horse ever sold at the Barretts May sale of 2-year-olds in training, a $375,000 French Deputy filly who was later named Cambria Gold. Back in action at the juvenile auctions early in 2004, Jackson, in partnership with Marsha Naify, bought True Integrity, an Honour and Glory colt, for $575,000 at the Barretts March select sale. At the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. March select auction, Jackson purchased the most expensive 2-year-old filly ever sold by OBS, a $575,000 daughter of Yankee Victor named Yankee Million.

At the same time he was buying horses, Jackson was assembling an advisory team. Its members included Headley, who trained 2000 champion sprinter Kona Gold.

"Bruce is an authentic original, and one of the best horsemen I've ever known," Jackson said. "He's also a partner, and working with him is a pure pleasure. I don't think there is anyone who breaks or trains a horse--or even selects a horse--who is equal to Bruce."

Bloodstock agent Emmanuel de Seroux of Narvick and Brad Martin also are among the key people on Jackson's team. De Seroux helped Bruce McNall and the late Allen Paulson develop their successful Thoroughbred operations, and he also has been a major player in many bloodstock deals involving the Japanese. Martin was involved in the management of the late Marshall Naify's 505 Farms, which enjoyed success with champion Bertrando and grade I winner Manistique.

One of the newest members of Jackson's team is Andre Lobanoff, who is the manager of Stonestreet Farm. Lobanoff previously worked as the assistant to Russell Drake, the manager of Martin and Pam Wygod's River Edge Farm in California.

Lobanoff is in the process of moving Jackson's mares and foals to Stonestreet and hiring a staff. Garry Megibben is the broodmare manager, and Janet Beyersdorfer is the consignment manager for Jackson's sale horses.

"We'll be making a few minor repairs, but there will be no major changes," said Lobanoff of the former Buckram Oak. "It is one of the premier farms in Lexington. There won't be any major changes; we won't be adding any barns. We're basically just going with it as it is."

Said Jackson, "We probably looked at 20 farms in Kentucky, and there was nothing quite as impressive as Buckram Oak in terms of the quality of the improvements. If you go to the farm you'll see stone bridges; you'll see roads, hedges, trees, and barns. Everything is top class. I would have had to pay more for land elsewhere than I did for Buckram Oak."

The farm also stood out because of its location.

"The land along Old Frankfort Pike is some of the best land I've seen in Kentucky," Jackson said. "I'm a 14th generation farmer, so I know soil, and the soil there is exceptional. Some of the best horses in the past have been raised there. The farm is close to Lexington, and it's close to Keeneland. It's also near the airport, and we'll be coming in and out of there all the time."

Batten down the hatches, Kentucky. Hurricane Jackson probably is going to be gaining strength for a long time to come.

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