05/30/2011 2:01PM

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.

jeff pastorini More than 1 year ago
read ur article about lightning strikes. my stepfather(tommy barrow) rode in that race or was riding that day(havent been able to verify). the story as he told it was alot of jocks stopped at that puddle area to quickly rinse off dirty hands etc.. he normally did, but with the thunder decided not to that day, and when he turned his head back it had struck navarro.cant find the entries for that day or the results online. any ideas where to find that info? thanks
Don More than 1 year ago
Congratulations to Jack Robbins on his 90th. When Doc was practicing medicine, he was a strong presence in the stable areas and could talk anyone's talk while conferring with trainers, owners, breeders, and anyone earning their keep on the backside. Doc is a cordial, friendly sort and is more than a credit to the industry. Stalwart figure that he is, he's part of the industry's foundation. Thanks, Jay, for the tribute.
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Hi Jay, Good luck (and belated birthday wishes) to Mr. Jack Robbins who evidently has a little Oak Tree in him. The post by ThoroGreats caught my eye (as did your nice remembrance of King Kelly and a long gone time). I'd mention Forego as one to think about. Won the Woodward 4 times (1974-77) Won the JC Gold Cup in 1974 when it was at 2 miles - talk about long gone times! Ran 7th in the 1977 Whitney at 7 to run his Spa record to 0-2. So much for the waters. But he did win two edition's of the Widener at Hialeah which was a G-1 at 10 F and THE prestigious east coast winter race at the time. And being 1500 miles or so from his base, showed he had a road game. Toss in 2 Carters (G-2), 2 Met Miles (G-1), 3 Brooklyn H as a G-1, a G-1 Suburban and a 10F G-2 Gulfstream Park H and, well, he was hard as hickory and as tough to find (have you tried to find good hickory these days?). 54 starts: 34 w, 9 2nds, and 7 3rds. And if you want a treat (and who doesn't) try and find him running down Honest Pleasure in the G-1 Marlboro Cup of 1976. Now THAT is exciting! Thanks, as always.
ThoroGreats More than 1 year ago
Hello Mr. Hovdey. I have just read your recent article on Kelso and his accomplishments. Would you possibly be able to research something for me? Is Easy Goer the only horse ever to win the Belmont Stakes, Whitney, Travers, Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup? I believe he is and that would be like the equivalent of a west coast horse winning the Santa Anita Handicap, a triple crown race,Hollywood Gold Cup,Pacific Classic and Goodwood,etc. Also, I have only found three horses in history to even win the Whitney,Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup in the same year and they are Easy Goer,Kelso and Slew O'Gold. A few horses did it (Lemon Drop Kid)but not in the same year. I also only found two horses to win the Champagne,Belmont and Travers and they are Easy Goer and Birdstone. Maybe you could do some research and find out for me? That would be great. Thanks Mr. Hovdey