Jackson Bend has done a little bit of everything in his career. He has raced at eight tracks in five states, competed at distances ranging from 4 ½ furlongs to 1 ¼ miles, and has tested champions Lookin At Lucky and Uncle Mo in graded stakes.
This year’s Breeders’ Cup will give Jackson Bend the chance to stake his own championship claim when he competes in either the Sprint or the Dirt Mile.
After finishing third in last year’s Preakness, Jackson Bend has made his mark in middle-distance races this year. When he won the Forego in September, he became the first horse to place in a Triple Crown race and go on to win a Grade 1 sprint since Hard Spun, who in 2007 finished second in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness prior to his victory in the King’s Bishop.
It was in sprints at Calder Race Course where Jackson Bend, a Florida-bred son of Hear No Evil, first made an impact, winning the Frank Gomez Memorial Stakes and Florida Stallion Dr. Fager Stakes at six furlongs, as well as the Florida Stallion Affirmed Stakes at seven furlongs. Following a 2 ¾-length score after stumbling badly at the start of the Florida Stallion In Reality Stakes, Robert LaPenta decided to buy an interest in Jackson Bend from owner/breeder Jacks or Better Farm.
“Some of those Calder horses are really starting to develop,” said LaPenta. “I don’t know why they start to develop early, whether it’s because they race early or because the track gets them fit. J.B. showed that competitive spirit, and I was impressed with the way he ran. He’s small, but he’s an efficient mover and is a well put-together horse.”
Following LaPenta’s acquisition, Jackson Bend was transferred from trainer Stanley Gold to Hall of Fame conditioner Nick Zito, who in recent years has trained Grade 1 winners The Cliff’s Edge, War Pass, Da’ Tara, and Ice Box for LaPenta. Jackson Bend finished second in his first three starts for his new connections, reporting home three-quarters of a length behind Winslow Homer in the Grade 3 Holy Bull and being well beaten by Eskendereya in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and Grade 1 Wood Memorial.
Jackson Bend failed to fire when 12th in the Kentucky Derby, but nearly pulled off an 11-1 upset in the Preakness, finishing three-quarters of a length behind dual champion Lookin At Lucky and a head behind eventual Grade 1 winner First Dude.
“If you go back to his 3-year-old season, he could have been a superstar,” said LaPenta. “We ran into monsters like Eskendereya, and [Jackson Bend] came back in the Preakness after making a move, checking, and splitting horses. I watched the replay, and I thought he could have at least beaten First Dude.”
A victory in his 3-year-old season proved elusive for Jackson Bend, with his best finish after the Triple Crown being a fourth in the Grade 3 Ack Ack Handicap in November at Churchill Downs when back in the hands of Gold.
Jackson Bend returned to Florida this winter with Gold, nearly regaining the winning thread in his second start of the year, finishing second to S.S. Stone, who was trained by Zito for LaPenta, in the Grade 3 Skip Away at Gulfstream Park. A third-place finish in the Memorial Day Handicap, his final start in Florida, marked the 12th race in his losing streak.
It was time for a change. Jackson Bend rejoined Zito’s string at Saratoga Race Course, with his connections deciding to cut the 4-year-old cut back in distance for the seven-furlong James Marvin on the Spa’s opening day. The result was a 2 ½-length victory against a graded stakes-quality field.
“We thought, ‘Why don’t we shorten him up a little?’” said LaPenta. “The plan was to shorten him up and then point him towards the Breeders’ Cup.”
But first came engagements in Saratoga’s Grade 1, seven-furlong Forego, a race Jackson Bend won by 3 ¼ lengths, and Belmont’s Grade 2, one-mile Kelso Handicap, in which he finished second by three lengths to Uncle Mo after breaking slowly and making a strong inside middle move on the turn before being repelled by the front runner.
“[Jackson Bend] had to make up ground after spotting Uncle Mo five lengths at the start, and the track seemed to be favoring speed that day,” noted LaPenta.
With Jackson Bend having finished in the exacta in three straight one-turn starts, LaPenta and Zito are faced with a decision: have the colt make his first start at six furlongs since his 2-year-old season by entering him in the Sprint or keep him at eight furlongs for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
“Right now, it’s looking like a lot of horses entered in the Sprint could end up in the Dirt Mile,” said LaPenta. “We’re still leaning towards the Mile, but I want another day or two to see how it looks. I think six might be a little short.”
Regardless of what race they choose, LaPenta and Zito know Jackson Bend will put forward his best effort.
“Nick thinks he’s been spectacular,” said LaPenta. “J.B. is everybody’s hero. He’s an undersized horse with a lot of heart. He never gets intimidated.”