LONG association between trainer and assistant grows

Monday, July 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RUIDOSO DOWNS, N.M. (AP) _ Fourteen years ago a short, skinny kid with a yearning to ride fast horses walked onto the Oklahoma ranch of quarter horse trainer Jack Brooks in search of a job.

Patrick Jackson had a high school diploma and little else in the summer of 1987.

What he did have was cystic fibrosis, a debilitating, terminal illness that had been wracking his body since birth. When he graduated that spring from high school, Jackson stood 4-foot-10 and weighed 78 pounds.

Jackson had the stature to be a jockey, but nowhere near the strength. Undeterred, he asked Brooks if he'd teach him to ride.

``He put his foot up on the gate,'' Brooks says, recalling their first meeting at his ranch in Jones, Okla. ``I thought he was 10 or 12 years old. I said, 'Can you ride?' He said, 'Oh, yeah.' Well, he couldn't ride at all.''

Jackson couldn't ride, but Brooks couldn't turn away the teen-ager. He hired him to work in his barn and Jackson is still there. He's worked his way up from stable hand and groom to now an assistant trainer to one of the country's most successful conditioners of quarter horse runners.

Jackson, 31, and Brooks, 65, share a father-son kind of bond.

``Jack is more than just a boss,'' said Jackson. ``I've never had respect for anyone more than I have for Jack. I feed off him and he feeds off me.''

Jackson worked for Brooks for nearly two years before he told him he had cystic fibrosis. Jackson had to be hospitalized several times during that period, and each time Brooks gave him the time off he needed. He says Brooks never questioned him about the nature of his illness.

``He knew something was wrong, but he didn't know what,'' says Jackson. ``Jack's not the type to get into a person's business, but I had to tell him. He was too good to me. When I did, he told me, 'You do what you have to do and when you can, you come back to work.'''

Jackson's battle with cystic fibrosis goes on. He has lost his right lung to the disease and his left lung is damaged to the point he will soon need a transplant. A spokeswoman at Baylor Medical Center said Jackson is high on the list of potential recipients for a double lung transplant.

Still, Jackson is at work most days by 6 a.m. and works sometimes till 9 or 10 at night.

``It's unbelievable what kind of person he is,'' Brooks said. ``He don't have to work that hard, but he does. He works like my other hands. I've seen him when he was really down and going to the hospital. You figure, well, this is it. Next thing you know, he's back. And he doesn't come back and lay around.''

Jackson says working for Brooks and being around the racetrack has kept him alive.

``It's being happy in life,'' he says. ``I was supposed to have died by the time I was 15. The doctors are overwhelmed at how healthy I am. They say I'm the healthiest CS patient they've ever seen.''

Brooks has won the $2 million All American Futurity _ quarter horse racing's version of the Kentucky Derby _ eight times. Jackson has been with him for five of them.

Brooks has been training race horses for 42 years and has saddled nearly 9,000 winners. Earlier this year he drew much media attention when he was placed on probation for a year by the State Racing Commission. The penalty was imposed because one of his horses, a filly named Golden Form, tested positive for a derivative of cocaine after winning a race at Sunland Park last year.

Brooks has maintained he is innocent. He was not at Sunland Park when the horse was stabled there and did not have contact with the horse for two weeks before the race.

Brooks has said the cocaine case has hurt his reputation, but he remains much in demand with horse owners and in high esteem with those who work with him.

``Jack is probably one of the most honest and reputable people I know in the racing industry,'' said David Barrett, a horse owner from Artesia, N.M., who has been taking his horses to Brooks for nearly a decade. ``He's helped a lot of people that need help and a lot of people don't know that he does.''

Larry Shaw, 34, went to work for Brooks about 15 years ago. Shaw, who calls his boss ``Daddy Brooks,'' had been a farm hand and knew little about handling race horses. Brooks says Shaw is now one of his best workers.

Then there's Heather Evans, a 20-year-old student at San Antonio (Texas) Community College who has had spina bifida since birth. She has worked for Brooks several summers at Ruidoso.

``I couldn't consider him more of a friend,'' said Evans. ``Jack and (wife) Wynona, they've become family.''

Wynona and Jack Brooks were high school sweethearts in Blanchard, Okla., and got married after her second year in college. Wynona Brooks says the cocaine case has unfairly tarnished her husband's reputation.

``Even in his growing up years, he always had principals,'' she said. ``He's always known what was right and what was wrong.''

With Jackson, Brooks can do no wrong.

``I get everything I need from Jack,'' he said. ``I've got a job. I have a wonderful friendship.''