05/30/2011 1:01PM

Oak Solid


Happy 90th birthday to Jack Robbins, who was born on May 28, 1921, which turned out to be a very good day for horse racing. Robbins has been a breeder, an owner, and a racing empressario, but most of all he was among the pioneers of racetrack veterinary medicine -- the good kind of racetrack veterinary medicine. The kind that does not tap a joint first and ask questions later. The kind that does not store snake venom in a trainer's tack room fridge. The kind that does not hide behind trainer responsibility rules.

Throughout his career Robbins represented the kind of backstretch practice that embodied the gospel of diligent diagnostics and measured response. Since healthy, fit horses tend to remain sounder than unheathy, unfit horses, Robbins worked best with trainers who knew how to balance the challenges of care-taking and race-winning. Charlie Whittihgnam, Ron McAnally, Eddie Gregson, Bob Wheeler and Noble Threewitt were only a few of the long-term Robbins clients in a prestigious line going back to the West Coast Calumet Farm stable of Ben and Jimmy Jones, some 60 years ago.

Robbins is not particularly happy with the realities of turning 90, until he considers the alternative, and then gathers around him a family that both reflects and basks in the light of his integrity, as they did last Saturday in Rancho Santa Fe. His four sons, including Del Mar vice-president of racing Tom Robbins and Tiznow's trainer Jay Robbins, were joined by brothers Don and Dave, their wives, plus a dozen or so grand-children and great grand-children. And at the center of it all was Maggie, Jack's wife of 66 years.

"I guess there's not much call for 90-year-old birthday cards," Robbins cracked. "I got two that were the same -- one from New York and one from Pasadena."

Hang around long enough and you'll see a lot of things both come and go, but one thing Robbins did not think he would outlive was the Oak Tree Racing Association, of which he was a founding director. Oak Tree opened for business in 1969 and presented 41 years of top-class racing, including five runnings of the Breeders' Cup, while leasing Santa Anita Park for a strong month's worth of autumn dates. If you've heard of horses like Cougar II, John Henry, Bold n' Determined, Life's Magic, Snow Chief, Free House and Val Royal, among many others, the first time you heard about them likely was because of an Oak Tree performence. 

Today, Oak Tree survives in name only. Frank Stronach took advantage of the bankruptcy of his Magna Entertainment Corp., Santa Anita's owner, to tear up Oak Tree's lease. After an agonizing public soap opera that took up most of 2010, Oak Tree had one last stand at Hollywood Park and then was buried as a racing association. The last shovel of dirt was provided by the California Horse Racing Board, which granted Stronach's Santa Anita operation the 2011 dates formerly operated by Oak Tree.

For the time being Oak Tree will exist as a charitable foundation, but it will do business without Jack Robbins as president. After 10 years as Oak Tree's leader, Robbins stepped aside in early May to the position of board chairman, turning the duties of president over to John Barr. Oak Tree may be gone as a marquee race meet and its main man may be 90, but hopefully its philosophy will live on, as a non-profit operating association positioned to give the sport a chance to function without corporate distractions and shareholder pressure.