“All I ever wanted to do was ride horses and muck out stalls,” Gretchen says, noting that her sentiments haven’t changed much. “I’d rather see races than go to a cocktail party any day,” she says matter-of-factly.
Growing up near Bluebell, Pennsylvania, she began riding at the age of three, and got her first horse at 16, spending her summers at riding camp, perfecting the finer points of showmanship and jumping. She remembers reading about Whirlaway, the 1941 Triple Crown winner, and dreaming about the Kentucky Derby “ever since I was a little girl. [I] studied his photograph and loved it.”
Gretchen transferred to Penn in her sophomore year from Briarcliff Junior College, majoring in English. There she began dating a “good-looking” three-sport athlete named Roy Jackson she’d known from her high-school days at the Springside School in Chestnut Hill (the couple met at a subscription dance series held at The Merion Tribute House during their junior year). They married in 1959, settled on the Main Line and, as Gretchen puts it, “eased into horse ownership.”
Roy’s father, M. Roy Jackson C1899, died when Roy was eight, but the younger Jackson remembers his parents keeping pleasure horses and adds that his father, an avid foxhunter, is responsible for bringing a type of foxhound, the Penn-Marydel, to this country. Roy’s mother, Almira Rockefeller, and his stepfather, Hardie Scot L’34, got into the racing business in the 1950s. “I remember going to Atlantic City and watching the races,” Roy told The Blood Horse magazine in May. “I rode a bit as a kid, but all the boys stopped riding and started playing football while all the girls went on with horses.”
Gretchen still rides, and while their four children were growing up, she fox-hunted and “hung around with people who had race horses.” After living in Chester Springs and Paoli, the Jacksons bought their current property, a former dairy farm, in the late 1970s. Today, the bucolicand extremely animal- and child-friendly190-acre Lael Farm, just down the road from New Bolton Center, is home to 18 Jackson horses, all of which Gretchen feeds and checks every morning at 7:00.
The Jacksons are longtime supporters of Penn’s vet school, and Gretchen has been on the board of overseers since 2002. She’s also involved with Thoroughbred Charities of America and Anna House, a day-care center for children of backstretch employees at Belmont Park, and feels strongly about giving back to the sport. She describes herself as “deeply spiritual” and holds a master’s degree in pastoral counseling from Neumann College; she’s worked both at the YMCA in Wilmington and at Mirmont Treatment Center in Media, counseling children of alcoholics.
Roy’s athletic career at Penn was cut short by a potentially fatal heart condition discovered at the beginning of his sophomore year. (Surgery saved his life, but his resulting hospitalization delayed his graduation from 1959 to 1961. ) He channeled his love of sports into the sports business, first as a team owner and minor-league baseball executive starting in 1967, then as the head of his own sports agency, Convest, Inc., which he formed in 1983. He sold the agency in 2000 to devote himself full time to racing, a pastime Gretchen had selected back in the 1970s because she “figured it was something [they] could do together.”
The Jacksons entered the business as breeders, purchasing their first brood mare, Royal Sense, in the late 1970s.
Success in the racing business doesn’t come easily or quickly. It wasn’t until 1998 that things started to take off for the Jacksons’ racing operation, when Rashas Warning became their first significant winner, followed by a series of victories a year later with other horses.
Their European horse, Superstar Leo, was the champion juvenile in England and France in 2003. And on the morning of this year’s Kentucky Derby, the Jacksons, three of their children, spouses, and a full complement of grandchildren gathered in their hotel room to watch George Washington, a horse they bred, win the Stan James Two Thousand Guineas, a major race in England. “I don’t know how to explain two classic wins on the same day,” Roy said, after Barbaro won the Derby. “But we’re really enjoying it.”
The Jacksons divide the training duties for their American horses between Barclay Tagg, with whom Gretchen grew up, and Michael MatzBarbaro’s trainerwhose home base of operation, the Fair Hill training center, is in close proximity to the Jacksons’ farm. They have 72 horses in various stages of training or breeding, plus another 16 racing. One of these, Showing Up, ran side by side with Barbaro along the backstretch of the Kentucky Derby, ultimately finishing sixth. “I have a picture in my mind of Barbaro and Showing Up running together up the backstretchour colors running together,” Roy recalls.
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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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FEATURE: Something about Barbaro