It can tell you a lot about an individual. Bob Jackson figured he was going to be at the racetrack all his life. So did just about everyone else. After all, he was only 13 when he first tasted the lure of thoroughbred racing working at the bush meets in Saskatchewan and Manitoba in the summer while he was still going to school.
“I got hooked early,” said Jackson. “My grandfather was a horseman. He raised Clydesdales and I remember putting a harness on the stud and riding him down to breed the mares. And my brother, Dan, did the same thing. So I had a little bit of it in my blood.”
But, after moving to Ontario for seven years in 1983 where he worked as a groom for top flight stables like Samson Farms and Adena Springs and Frank Stronach, coming to Alberta, and then heading back to Ontario, Jackson up and quit thoroughbred racing. Just like that. It was 2002.
“I was burnt out,” said Jackson, 60 but looks 15 years younger. “I just needed a change. It wasn’t fun anymore and I need to have fun doing this. And I was down to just one horse. So Jackson and Faith, his wife of 30 years packed up their belongings and headed to Nelson, B.C. where Jackson started building timber-frame homes. “Faith had always wanted to move to the Kootenays and she had followed me around for 15 years so I let her take the lead for a while.”
Jackson spent 15 years building those houses. But then, as the emptiness lingered and the intoxicating attraction of thoroughbred racing took hold one more time, Jackson couldn’t take it any longer. He needed to be back at the track. “I never thought I’d be away from the horses for that long. It’s the same old story: once horse racing is in your blood it’s there to stay.”
Faith understood. “She knew I’d be a happier person if I was back at the races. So, almost out of the blue I emailed Robertino Diodoro this past winter,” he said of one of North America’s leading trainers with horses spread across the continent.
“I heard Robertino was going to bring some horses to Alberta this year so I asked him if he needed someone to help him here. Thankfully he said yes,” said Jackson, who looks after the 14 horses Diodoro has at Northlands where the barn has had 12 top three finishes in 23 starts. “I couldn’t be happier. I’m making a living doing what I love again.”
Diodoro said he didn’t know Jackson very well but made a few phone calls and everything he heard was positive, “Bob is a hard worker, very detailed and is on top of things,” said Diodoro, who then asked Jackson to come to Phoenix for a few weeks. “I showed him how we do things,” said Diodoro, who also has about 125 horses at New York’s Belmont - where he is fifth in the trainer standings - Minnesota’s Canterbury Downs, Iowa’s Prairie Meadows and California’s Santa Anita.
“Everybody does things differently but we run our stables the same everywhere. It doesn’t matter if it’s at Santa Anita, Northlands or Timbuktu. We like to be consistent,” said Diodoro, who left Alberta four years ago and who is fourth in North America standings with 119 victories already this year.
“Having Bob in Edmonton has worked out very well for us. I guess working 9 to 5 is OK for some people. But not me,” said Jackson. “I love the ups of horse racing and I don’t mind the downs. Working in a regular job you just don’t get that wide ranger of emotions. “I just love the horses. I’m happier grooming horses than anything else. Horses are good medicine. Working with animals is what I love best. I really missed it,” said Jackson, who was raised in Russell, Manitoba which is just 15 km from the Saskatchewan border and 340 km northwest of Winnipeg.
Russell is only home to about 1,600 people but another native of that town is former Assiniboia Downs champion jockey Irwin Driedger, who started riding in 1972 and, who, in 1981 set a single-season record of 214 wins in Winnipeg - a record that will likely never be broken.
“Irwin taught me how to ride. I tagged along with him when he rode in the bush meets,” Jackson said of Driedger, who is now the track man at Woodbine, Ontario. “He’s the guy who really got me hooked.”
In his first stint in Alberta, Jackson worked for Brad Smythe and Ron Brock for a while before hooking up with R.K. ‘Red’ Smith, Alberta’s all-time leading trainer in 1991 to 1992. “We had some good horses back then. Stakes winners like Paralyzed, Make’s Partner and Kick up a Row,” remembered Jackson, who also spent time grooming horses in Ohio, Kentucky and Florida.
After the Alberta season ends, Jackson is planning on continuing to work for Diodoro during the winter in New York. “Aqueduct is a good race place and it’s somewhere I’ve never been before. Anything new is a good thing,” said Jackson. Diodoro usually sends a horse to the Canadian Derby - a race he has already won twice: in 2013 with Broadway Empire and in 2014 with Edison.
But he may already have a contender in place in Ted Grailing’s Xtreme Lyra. Third in the Derby prep race’s one-mile Ky Alta, Xtreme Lyra, who won last year’s Birdcatcher, didn't have a good trip when he had to be checked at the top of the lane. “When he finally found racing room it was too late,” said Diodoro. “He was on top after the horses crossed the wire and galloped out. “I’m excited about running him in the Count Lathum on July 15. The Count Lathum is another sixteenth of a mile longer and that will help him. He’ll run all day.”
Diodoro will send out two horses in two stakes races this Sunday for Alberta owner Randy Howg. In Santa Anita he has Gorgeous Ginny in a two-year-old filly stake while in New York he will send out Inside Straight Straight in a stake restricted to New York breds. “Both will probably be favoured,” said Diodoro, “Sunday is a big day. Hopefully it’s a good one.”
The winner of the $750,000 Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, Inside Straight, who was fourth in last year’s Canadian Derby - where stablemate Solve ran second - lost all chance at the start of the recent Grade 1 Met Mile when he tried to make the gap between the starting gate and the inside railing. “He tried to make a U-turn and took himself right out of the race,” said Diodoro.
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