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The Jacksons Still Counting Their Blessings

by Terry Conway

On an Indian summer October morning, the splendor of their Lael Farm unfolds all around. Seated at a table at the rear of the house near West Grove, Pa. Gretchen Jackson gazes out at a dozen sheep, most dozing under a spreading tree.

High on a distant ridge, a string of Jonathan Sheppard's horses are put through their paces. Storm Cat (the world's most expensive stallion at $500,000 a session) and steeplechase champion Flatterer were tutored on that turf by the Hall of Fame trainer in the early 1980s.

Off the far side of the house is a lovely pond with ducks cruising about the tranquil waters. Looking down across much of Lael Farm's 190 acres, brown-fenced paddocks are home to Roy and Gretchen Jackson's 13 horses and ponies, plus four really cute miniature donkeys.

Each morning at 7 a.m. Gretchen feeds and checks on all of them.

"For me this is heaven, and I thank God each day for it," she marveled. "The morning is the best part of the day. I just enjoy being outdoors watching the wildlife, being with the dogs and horses. I enjoy touching the horses and caring for them."

5 Months Later

It's now over five months since Barbaro suffered catastrophic leg fractures when he took a misstep in the early strides of the Preakness. The Kentucky Derby champ got a new cast on his right hind leg on Oct. 9— the first in six weeks-- and radiographs showed the leg to be healing well. Dr. Dean Richardson said he was pleased with the colt's progress and the overall condition of the leg. The colt's left hind foot, which had laminitis, continues to gradually improve

Richardson, chief of surgery at the George D. Widener Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, noted that it could take another six months to a year for the colt to grow back the left hind hoof so that it will hold up when he is out in a pasture.

"It's limbo time, there is still a lot of concern, " said Gretchen. "It's not easy seeing a horse who was born to run at the track or just being outside in a grass field, then seeing him stuck in a clinic for so long."

Still, the Jacksons always count their blessings.

World-Class Racehorses

Take Showing Up. The chestnut colt ran in tandem with Barbaro down the backstretch in the Derby, finishing a respectable sixth.

"That was pretty amazing," said Gretchen, smiling broadly. "We have a wonderful photo of the two of them side-by-side turning for home."

The flashy son of Strategic Mission has provided the couple with plenty of thrills. Purchased for $60,000 by his trainer Barclay Tagg at the 2005 May 2-year old sale in Timonium, MD, he has scored six wins in eight career starts.

Showing Up sparkled in the $300,000 Jamaica Handicap, steadily pulling away to a 3 1/2-length victory Oct. 14. The win brought Showing Up's career earnings to $1,310,500 – all this year. Winner of three of four turf races, his only defeat came in September when he finished a close third to older grass star Cacique.

After much deliberation Tagg plans to skip the Breeders' Cup Mile on Nov. 4, citing an international field loaded with top-flight older turf milers. Instead the trainer is pointing the colt to the $500,000 Hollywood Derby at Hollywood Park on Nov. 26.

"He's only a 3-year-old," said Tagg. "We want to build for a championship run next year."

GW, Superstar

Even with Showing Up bypassing the Breeders' Cup, the Jacksons still have a rooting interest in English superstar George Washington, who they bredin 2003. George Washington was previously the favorite to win the $2 million Breeders Cup Mile Turf Race. On October 16, his owners/trainer elected to run him instead in the $4 million Breeders Cup Classic, where the three-year old colt's odds are 5-1 to win. He will face the BCC favorite Bernardini, who became the dominant horse this year after the undefeated Barbaro shattered his leg in the Preakness.

"Gorgeous George" is the winner of the English Two Thousand Guineas and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (both group I) this year. The Irish racing titan Coolmore Stud paid $2.05 million for the Danehill colt, the top price of the 2004 Tattersall October yearling sale.

"He was my choice to keep," said Gretchen, smiling. "It killed us when we sold him, but that's the business we're in. It was a very hard decision with Danehill (his sire) coming to an end. The only way we were going to part with him was if someone was really willing to pay a huge number, and so he went."

The Breeding Business

Russell Jones, a friend since high school, mentioned that the farm adjoining his property, Walnut Green Farm, was for sale in 1978. The Jacksons snapped it up. They named it Lael, the Gaelic word for loyalty.

The couple first got started in the business when they formed a partnership with Jones and bought their first broodmare, Royal Sense, nearly three decades ago. For two decades Lael Farm was set up for foaling, boarding and breaking horses. Gretchen often assisted in the births of their foals.

The Jacksons' success was relatively modest until 1998 when they focused on racing and building a strong broodmare band. Four years ago, they moved their broodmares and thoroughbred operation to Mill Ridge Farm near Lexington, Ky.

The Jacksons have racing and breeding operations in both the U. S. and England. Their English trainers race the Jacksons horses in England, Ireland and France. They have a couple of very successful broodmares based in England, including Bordighera who produced George Washington

Enticing is a homebred currently racing in the Lael Stables' green-blue-and white silks in England. The two-year old filly has three wins and a third in five starts this year. She is a daughter of the Jackson broodmare Superstar Leo. In 2003 when they campaigned her as a two-year old filly-- an English and French champion—Superstar Leo made a habit of beating males. The Jacksons are looking at relocating the broodmare to Mill Ridge in Kentucky.

Another promising two-year old homebred is the colt Wyeth, namesake of the legendary Chadds Ford artists, who is ready to begin racing in England.

Stormy Kiss

Last August their Stormy Kiss scored a front-running victory in the $150,000 Honorable Miss Handicap at Saratoga Race Course. She was a Group-1 winner in her native Argentina prior to the Jacksons' purchase of the now four-year old mare.

Sly One, trained by Michael Matz, was recently retired and will stand at stud in Argentina for polo ponies.

"We have some good older horses like Rumspringer and No Fair who have run Byer (speed) figures in the 90s, but they're not stakes winners yet," said Gretchen. "They're picking up checks."

As of early October the only two-year that has raced is Scenery Change, who finished third on a sloppy track. He's bred to go long on the turf. One of their most promising ones, Stay Awake, was seriously injured at John Stephens Thoroughbreds farm in Ocala, Fla., a week before she was to be shipped up north to begin racing. John Stephens and his wife, Jill, also supervised the early training of Barbaro.

"She ran into a tree in one of the paddocks," related Gretchen. "It was really bad, they thought she would have to be put down. After four months of stall rest she's back in training and we're told she's fine. She'll be coming up to one of our trainers. It's all part of the process. You can't be in a hurry."

In September the Jacksons bought three colts and a filly at the Keeneland Yearling Sale.

"Headley (Bell, their sales agent) sets a price for each horse, " she said. "We try to be conservative. We really do. There are some high profile horses down there you would like to have. But with Coolmore Stud and the sheiks, it's tough. We go into it with a set amount. Most of the time Headley's right on the money."

Sale Topper

The couple bred the sales topper last month at the Tattersalls' Yearling Sale in England. A half-brother to George Washington and Godolphin's multiple Group-1 winner Grandera was purchased by Sheikh Mohammed for $2.5 million.

The Jacksons have high hopes for a crop of foals next year from a number of new sires, including Empire Maker, Tiz Now, Forrestry, Menifee and Royal Academy. Gretchen said roughly 20 of their broodmares are in foal.

"We'll sell some as babies, some we'll keep and sell some of our broodmares. Some of the broodmares will be coming off the track to breed, some of them we'll sell. It's just constant motion."

Barbaro's Journey

The Jacksons' Lael Farm sits on the outskirts of Unionville, Pa. It's an area sprinkled with top-flight thoroughbred owners and breeders as well as celebrated connections from the world of steeplechasing, three-day eventing, polo and show horses.

Nearby neighbors make up a "Who's Who" of the sport horse world: Valentine, Ledyard, Wicks, Jones, Hannum, Jenney, Cocks, Neilson and Strawbridge. A few miles down the road from Lael is the New Bolton Center.

"Getting out to graze once or twice a day has really helped Barbaro," said Gretchen. "Some days he's pretty full of himself, shaking his head, all that sort of stuff. Some days he'll try and bite you. I think it's just getting old for him. The guy is just tired of being there."

The darkest days were in early July when the colt contracted the often deadly hoof disease, laminitis. Word went out: long-term prognosis, "poor."

"We knew he was in pain," she said. "I figured this was it. How much more could he tolerate? Dean (Richardson) wanted a shot at the pain management. He felt within ten days we'd know whether the horse could handle it.

"Barbaro wasn't distressed. His ears were up. He was bright-eyed, still eating. He was telling us he wanted to live. He adapted to the sling to help with his weight distribution. He is a very amazing horse."

Cures cropped up from all points across the globe. Barbaro received a sacred silk cloth that was hung near him in his stall. Someone sent the colt holy water from Lourdes. One of the sheiks involved in racing shipped holy water from the River Jordan.

When the medical staff was changing the bandages on the colt's leg, Jackson knelt down and sprinkled the holy waters onto Barbaro's leg.

"The staff probably thinks I'm a little bit nuts," she said with a laugh.

The Jacksons are completely overwhelmed with the outpouring of public support and love.

"In an interview I had mentioned that Whirlwind was the first horse I loved as a young girl," said Jackson. "Someone sent me wonderful photographs from 1942 of Whirlwind racing. The letters have been spectacular. We've probably received 15,000 letters and cards and three times that in emails.

"I believe Barbaro has been helped by everybody's prayers. We've had tremendous support from a prayer group in West Virginia."

Described as being very spiritual, Jackson earned a master's degree in pastoral counseling and worked for over a decade at the Mirmount Treatment Center in Media, Pa. and the YWCA in Wilmington, Del., counseling children of alcoholics and drug abusers.

"I'm not as good as the Amish are, but I try," she explained. "You don't have control of things. There is a power greater than you. That produces more peace internally and you become more accepting. You look for good to come out of bad situations."

Like all of Barbaro's fans, the Jacksons would have loved to seen the colt finish the other two Triple Crown races, plus the prestigious stakes races this fall and Breeders Cup Classic Nov. 4.

"Maybe that just wasn't the plan for Barbaro," Gretchen observed. "His treatments, all the new medical procedures, the equine medical community learned so much. It will have a huge impact on the general welfare of horses. That is a pretty amazing achievement in itself."

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