Jess Jackson and his wife, Barbara Banke, didn't turn Kendall-Jackson into one of the world's most successful wine companies by not understanding marketing or knowing what a little buzz can do to help sell a product. For almost a year now, Jackson and Banke have been applying that same marketing strategy to their other passion, Thoroughbred racing.
As the majority owners of Curlin, Jackson and Banke kept their cards close to the vest following their horse's 2007 Breeders' Cup Classic victory about whether or not Curlin would race in 2008. When no stud deal for Curlin was announced by December, industry insiders knew the horse would return to the racetrack in 2008. But Jackson (who does most of the public speaking regarding Curlin) delayed the announcement until accepting the golden statuette for Horse of the Year at the Eclipse Awards in January. That announcement created a news hook for the often painfully dull Eclipse Awards ceremony where there is seldom any suspense concerning the winners.
Jackson and Banke have taken things one race at a time for Curlin in 2008, sending the champ to the United Arab Emirates, where he dominated an international gathering of Thoroughbred in the Dubai World Cup. Following that conquest, Jackson began talking about other major targets for Curlin that most American horse owners could only dream of: the Arc de Triomphe in France, the Japan Cup in Tokyo, or one of the international races in Hong Kong. He even went so far as to run Curlin in a Grade 1 turf race at Belmont Park before taking the Arc off the table.
That left a fall campaign for Curlin up in the air. I'm certain Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen carefully mapped out different scenarios for Curlin with the assumption that the colt maintained his health and good form. But Jackson understood the heightened public interest in his horse, so he gave racing fans an opportunity to express their opinions about where Curlin should race next by publishing an Internet poll at his Stonestreet Farms Web site. Did it really matter that they went against public sentiment (a majority of fans voted to keep Curlin on turf) by returning Curlin to the dirt in the Woodward at Saratoga?
For more than a month, after the connections of Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown publicly declared the Breeders' Cup Classic as the ultimate goal for their colt, Jackson has hemmed and hawed about whether Curlin would go for a repeat in the Classic. At first citing a "been there, done that" philosophy and then stating uncertainty about the new Pro-Ride synthetic track at Santa Anita Park where the Breeders' Cup is being held, Jackson has, nevertheless, left the door open to take on Big Brown in America's richest horse race. But he hasn't quite decided whether or not he'll put Curlin in the Classic – at least not yet.
To paraphrase from those old Orson Welles television commercials for Paul Masson wine: "We will make no decisions until it's time."
What he's done is nothing more than good marketing. Had Jackson declared two months ago that Curlin would race in the Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic, there would have been little for fans to argue about or racing journalists to write about until the two horses stepped onto the same racetrack.
But by playing hard to get, Jackson has not only kept Curlin in the news, he's given the Breeders' Cup some buzz in the dog days of summer when racing gets little attention and even less television converage. Internet fan forums and bloggers have kept the "will he or won't he" flame alive. Turf writers have tried every tactic they know to get Jackson to commit to the Breeders' Cup Classic, even to the point of saying Curlin would lose a Horse of the Year vote if he ducked Big Brown.
Jackson and Banke must be loving every minute of the public debate that at times has bordered on public outrage. Breeders' Cup officials should love it, too, since they have very little money to spend on actual marketing and are getting loads of free publicity out of the Jackson-Banke slow dance.
In the end, we all know that Curlin will be in the starting gate at Santa Anita Oct. 25 for the Breeders' Cup Classic. He's already shipped to California to test the new racetrack and Jackson has a large block of hotel rooms reserved for Breeders' Cup week.
But please, Jess, keep us in suspense for a couple more weeks. You're giving us something to talk about, and the industry might learn a thing or two from you about marketing.
Ray Paulick is a Lexington, Ky.-based journalist who publishes the Paulick Report. (www.PaulickReport.com). Paulick served as editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse from 1992 to 2007, and over the past 25 years has covered thoroughbred racing, breeding and sales on six continents and more than a dozen countries. He has appeared on numerous television and radio news programs offering his expertise on the industry. Contact Ray at firstname.lastname@example.org.