By Chris McGrath
“I don't think it's rocket science,” says Dr. Stephen Jackson. “In the final analysis, you know, the eye of the master fattens the ox.”
The antiquity of that adage, and the reproof it implies, suggests that men have always been tempted by the notion that livestock might be fed according to some convenient prescription. But even in the 21st Century, even after all the advances in our understanding of nutrition, one of the field's premier experts insists that feed can only ever be the adjustable medium between a horseman's eye and the condition of his horse. “It doesn't matter what kind of rocket scientist I am, formulating the ration,” Jackson says. “If you don't have the horsemanship to feed right, it isn't going to work.”
That doesn't mean we should renounce science. Quite the opposite, in fact: because it's precisely because the human factor remains so important that we need people like Jackson; people who can match our improving grasp of how the Thoroughbred functions with a personal subtlety, a personal flair, in the case-by-case application of those principles.
Jackson has worked for many of the Turf's leading enterprises: Darley, Juddmonte, the late Jean-Luc Lagardère, Lane's End. He's even been given a seat on the board at Three Chimneys. And it's not as though all these hugely respected firms would hire him simply to be told that the science of nutrition is too remote, too theoretical, to supervise the manger of an individual horse. But what he does tell them all, and anyone else with ears to listen, is to temper expectations of modern nutrition.
“I tell my clients that if someone comes to them and says [their feed] is going to make this horse run faster, or jump higher, or eliminate OCD [developmental disease affecting bone and cartilage], then they need to run just as fast as they can away from that person,” he says. “Because there is no silver bullet. Nutrition, certainly, is not a silver bullet. It's a tiny piece of the entire process of raising an athlete.
“So to think that you can come up with a nutrient or supplement that's going to move a horse up is folly. At least I'm not smart enough to find it. You do the little things right: observe the horse, both on the racetrack and in the barn, and if he isn't doing right you try to figure out what it is.”
If anything, Jackson suspects that the key might be to prevent nutrition getting in a horse's way. Get your feed regime wrong, and you might prevent a horse reaching its genetic potential. Easier, in other words, to make a horse slower than faster.
“I try to stay away from supplements,” he says. “I figure if they have to use a supplement, I've done a bad job formulating a diet type deal. Probably in the last 100 evaluations I've done, I don't remember seeing a deficiency–but I do remember lots of instances where I thought they're getting too much of one thing or another, that can wreck the balance of the diet.
“The people who get it right tend to be the same as those who get other things right. Because they've put in the time and effort, the money and emotion, to study–or get somebody else to study–this component. Like they have their vet. Like they have their trainer. Like they have their blacksmith. Because it's a tough, tough racket if you do everything right; but it's impossible if you do it wrong. Unless lighting strikes.”
Jackson remembers being at a breeders' forum in Britain and hearing trainer Sir Mark Prescott remark that it had been a big advantage, 20 years ago, to have a good “feed man”–but that formula feeds had since levelled the field. And Jackson accepts that these have now achieved such precision and palatability that 90 per cent of farms now use them.
“But, interestingly, I've done some stuff for older trainers and when I analyzed what they were doing, it was pretty damned close to right,” Jackson notes. “They did it by trial and error, intuition, horsemanship.”
His abiding faith in old lore is consistent with Jackson's background as yet another significant influence on the modern American Thoroughbred who learned the ropes with Quarter Horses in Texas. His father was an extension horse specialist and, after reading animal science at Texas A&M, Jackson came up to the University of Kentucky for a PhD in equine nutrition. Foxhunting accelerated a passion for Thoroughbreds and, in terms of his own vocation, he found that the breed offered the ultimate challenge: to be raised sound enough to support its speed.
As Jackson puts it, he “got used to the colour green” and never went back to Texas. Not that the environmental advantages of Kentucky deceive him that forage and soil and climate ever have absolute virtue: as with everything else, they take their place in the line, as one more factor to be balanced.
“Don't get me wrong, I think Kentucky is a great place to raise a horse,” he says. “But I've always maintained that if you do due diligence, you can raise a good horse anywhere.”
Sure enough, he has managed young stock successfully in India and Saudi Arabia. Domestically, after all, even California sets a different kind of challenge.
“When I go into a place I usually don't try to reinvent the wheel,” Jackson remarks. “What I try to do is look at the horses. Look at what they're doing. Look at the resources available to them, not only in terms of hay and pasture but also grain and [local] ingredients. And then try to tailor the program to their environment. Because what's supposed to work in Central Kentucky doesn't work in Jerrys Plains, Australia.”
Jackson established himself in Kentucky as an academic and teacher, including 20 years as a professor at the university, and counts many Bluegrass horse professionals among his former students. Then he joined Dr. Joe Pagan, setting up Kentucky Equine Research, while his first private client was Josephine Abercrombie at Pin Oak. When Joe Osborne left that farm to work for Darley, he recommended Jackson to his new employers–for whom he now works on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in Japan. His clients in Japan also include a 150-strong stable, extending through farm and training center, while he has also worked with horses in training in Brazil and Newmarket.
In other words, Jackson can work the full palette, from nursing mares to older horses ten days off a run. That said, his priority has always been farmwork.
“Of course, present a trainer with a sound horse that's been raised properly, you can still screw it up,” he says. “For example, people think of bone like a 'two by four' piece of lumber. Okay, you've built the piece of lumber so, job done, move along to the next thing. But bone is an organ, always in a state of flux. So if you take a young horse raised on a good program, you can still undo a lot of what has been done during the developmental stage. And quickly.
“So you look at body condition. You make sure this horse is in an 'anabolic' rather than a 'catabolic' state: that he's gaining muscle and keeping bone healthy. I think that's one of the things about the really good trainers: you don't see their horses washed out very often. They're generally on an ascending plane.”
Because so much depends on physical evaluation, Jackson's passport has frayed corners: four weeks a year in Japan, one in Australia, two trips to Ireland. On the home front, moreover, he practises what he preaches–having built up his own boutique operation at the farm he aptly named, on its acquisition, for the Jackson Purchase area of his adopted state. Apart from offering at auction such youngsters he deems “too good for me to keep”, he largely breeds to race.
“Most of these horses, September [i.e. the Keeneland sale] is the most they'll ever be worth in their lives,” he says. “But I got tired of bringing what I thought to be nice, athletic horses and getting dinged because they had a P1 chip, or because they weren't radiographically perfect.”
Flint Stites, a former veterinarian and a seasoned trainer on the Midatlantic circuit, did so well with the first couple of RNAs sent over by Jackson that nowadays most of his yearlings typically aren't even entered for a sale. The core of the Jackson Purchase Farm broodmare band earned their stripes at stakes level with Stites, or their mothers did.
“I get a hell of a lot more thrill out of a homebred winning a race,” Jackson says. “It doesn't have to be a big race. People can be elitist about claiming horses but because a horse is running for a tag doesn't mean he's unsound, or unhealthy. And it's an opportunity for a lot of people to make a living in the business.”
As one breeding for the track sooner than the ring, Jackson is wise enough to favour his mares with proven sires. “I can breed to a horse for $15,000 that's produced 70 stakes winners versus $35,000 for a new horse that has produced all of nothing,” he reasons. “It's all blue sky, so I'm probably better off in terms of the odds of getting a horse that can run. I always say to clients, don't ever breed your 'A' mares to a first-crop sire. Because you are squandering genetics. Look through the November catalog and see how many stakes-winning mares have been bred to a freshman sire the first five times they were bred–when only 10% of those stallions are going to make it. The horses they were bred to, typically they're now in Scandinavia or Turkey.”
Through his clients, even so, he also has a weather eye on commercial trends. And he is concerned that the market has become besotted with youngsters he views as simply too big, too powerful.
“It used to be that 500 kilos was a big racehorse,” he reflects. “Now he's close to an average racehorse. In Japan, I have [established] that fillies with a race weight of less than 430 kilos are less inclined to be Group fillies, unless they really like to eat. So it takes a certain amount of mass and volume to be competitive today. That's because we've selected for heavy-muscled horses. But then you look at a really nice turf filly. It's a different body type, and I think we've gotten a lot of our dirt horses too heavy.”
His ideal is a finer build: balancing depth of chest with length of cannon bone and forearm, plus a good, “long-rein” shoulder.
“But then you look at this incredible racehorse called Justify (Scat Daddy),” he concedes. “That is a beast. I mean, an absolute mesomorph. Big, heavy muscle, lots of bone. So if you decide not to move the growth curve so far to the left, they're going to punish you in the sales ring. You've got to bring what the buyer wants, whether what the buyer wants is right or not.”
Excessive size is not the same as excessive fat, however, and Jackson is comforted that elite yearlings are no longer fatted calves. “They're well grown, and they've got adequate cover because fat's a pretty colour, but they're athletes,” he says. “In the 1970s, a lot were obese. But people have figured out that, other than sumo wrestlers, fat athletes don't exist. They're thinking more about optimizing instead of maximizing.”
Whatever shape you're breeding for, Jackson has an old-school conviction that horses should be reared as naturally as possible.
“The more time they spend outside, the more bone they'll have, the more athletic they'll be,” he says. “If I look at changes in the way people raise horses, over the last 30 years, I see more and more figuring how to get them outside as long as possible. One of the major causes I see of developmental orthopaedic disease is confinement.”
Strictly in terms of nutrition advice, however, Jackson is anything but dogmatic.
“I feed a cube myself, about as big as my index finger,” he says. “But I have clients that feed just straight sweet feed. Clients that feed bulk oats and a balancer. Others that use alfalfa hay and some that just use timothy. So if people have preferences, I try to develop a program they're comfortable with.”
Not least because that guarantees compliance. If Jackson comes back after a month and finds his client has slackened off his program, nobody gains.
“So you want something that makes sense, something you can teach them,” he says. “You know, I was a teacher for 20 years. What I try to do is show why we do these things; and how to see things that aren't right in a horse, that might have a nutrition variable. To me, always, it's about doing the little things right. Take care of the horse. Don't overface him, nutritionally or work-wise.”
Jackson is one of those who can communicate deep learning by sheer, infectious engagement. He makes a living out of his expertise, sure, but the compulsion comes from the horse.
“I don't snow ski, I don't water ski,” he says. “I don't go to the Bahamas. I don't have kids–except 22 head, with four legs, on the farm; and ten that are now racehorses. This is what I do, and what I enjoy doing.”
And if his professional fees are ultimately consumed by his amateur experiments, so be it. He smiles, gives a shrug, and says: “I never saw an armoured car following a hearse.”