August 14, 2014 at 1:00 am

Longtime trainer James Jackson back on top with thoroughbred racing at Hazel Park

Hazel Park — He tried for about a year, working at a plant at Ford Motor Company in 1965, but James Jackson realized pretty quickly it wasn’t for him.

Having been in the horse racing business all his life, being outdoors and breathing the smells — both good and bad — of a racetrack, it wasn’t an easy transition working indoors in an auto plant.

“It felt like a penitentiary,” said Jackson, 68, a trainer at Hazel Park. “It was nothing against the place. People there enjoyed it. But for me, just being outside all my life, this is hard work but it’s outdoors and I knew this was what I wanted to do.”

He’s been good at it. Jackson, who trains 25 thoroughbreds at Hazel Park, has won over 2,000 races in his career and three times (1993, 1995, 1996) was the leading trainer in Michigan.

In 2005, Jackson became the first African-American trainer to saddle a starter in the Kentucky Oaks, sending Gallant Secret to a third-place finish.

The days are long. He gets to the track every day at approximately 5:30 a.m., and on race days, stays until close to 11 p.m. (only heading home to Milford for a quick meal and rest).

When there aren’t any race days, Jackson can still be found there until early afternoon.

“But this is something I love,” he said. “No place other than home I’d rather be.”

This summer, Jackson could have gone anywhere in the Midwest with his wife, Laura (“She loves this as much as I do,” Jackson said), and set up camp for another successful season.

But he set his sights on coming home. The Milford native couldn’t be happier with his decision.

“I’m a Michigander. I love Michigan, I love Michigan racing” Jackson said. “I’ve lived here now for about 50 years. This is home. I just want to now see racing succeed here.

“Things have been going good here (Hazel Park) lately. The crowds have been great. The handle has been good. We just have to keep it going.”

For that to happen, said Jackson, horse racing needs help from the state.

If the state were to allow slot machines, or additional forms of gambling — turning tracks into what are commonly referred to as racinos — it would save the horse racing industry in Michigan, he said.

“If they can just help us a little bit, we can keep it going and you figure how many jobs horse racing creates, it’ll be a help all the way around,” he said.

Jackson was among many of the state’s horsemen who were active in working with the state to bring back thoroughbred racing.

“He was among a group of people who campaigned real hard,” said Mary Ann Barron, Hazel Park racing secretary. “They felt very strongly about it.”

Barron has held a variety of posts in the Michigan thoroughbred industry, spanning several decades, and isn’t surprised by Jackson’s success.

“His horses are always among the healthiest looking on the backside,” Barron said.

A failed attempt in New Boston with the Pinnacle Race Course left the Detroit area without thoroughbred racing. Thoroughbred tracks in Mount Pleasant and Muskegon also have closed.

“It was just too far (Muskegon, Mount Pleasant) for many people, too far to go,” Jackson said. “People like coming out here, in the nice weather, eating a meal, and seeing the races.

“And Hazel Park is a good location, close to a lot of places. The track here is among the best I’ve seen.”

After Detroit Race Course closed in 1998 — Jackson believes the horse racing industry in Michigan began to disintegrate with the closure — Jackson raced horses in Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Illinois.

But he was anxious to return to Michigan and help rebuild the industry. With the return of thoroughbred racing to Hazel Park, he sensed an opportunity for the sport to rekindle some interest and passion in local sports fans.

“You have a lot of people, especially on the East Side, who love it, who love to gamble on the horses, and it’s been great to see all this return to Hazel Park and the excitement we’ve had,” Jackson said.

James Jackson, 68, of Milford, loves that he can train his 25 horses at Hazel Park Raceway. He has won more than 2,000 races. / Photos by Steve Perez / Detroit News