09/25/2005 11:00PM

Expecting as Oak Tree nears


ARCADIA, Calif. - Wednesday is opening day of the Oak Tree meet, which is always a good thing. But I might need to take a little break after filing this piece to attend to some new duties around the house.

My wife, known to most people as Julie Krone, was 10 days overdue on Monday. And while we prefer not to think of our daughter as we would a video rental, or a library book, 10 days is a long time to be in the starting gate for anything.

The contractions finally began early Monday morning, low at first, then higher, as the natural production of oxytocin started doing its job and the big old muscle known as the uterus (from the Latin, meaning "to deliver from nine months of anticipation and three weeks of misery") started squeezing our daughter into the world. An article in a childbirth publication described the process as loosely related to "pushing a watermelon through the stretchy opening of a turtleneck shirt." Okay, that'll do. But I still prefer Bill Cosby's attempt to give men a rough idea of what is involved when he asked them to imagine pulling their lower lip up and over their head.

My firstborn arrived during the 1982 Oak Tree meet, forcing me to miss the victory of Skillful Joy and Laffit Pincay in the Linda Vista Handicap for 3-year-old fillies. The Linda Vista is long gone now, absent from the Oak Tree schedule since 1997, but the boy has turned into a young man and a racing scholar.

Strange and exciting things always seem to happen during Oak Tree. Never forget that the Oak Tree meet was the scene of the most jaw-dropping result in Breeders' Cup history, when Arcangues won the 1993 Breeders' Cup Classic at odds of 133-1.

There was nothing more exciting than a John Henry appearance, and he obliged his audiences by winning the Oak Tree Invitational three straight years, from 1980 through 1982, before its name was changed to the Clement L. Hirsch Turf Championship and its distance shortened from 12 to 10 furlongs.

They finally caught up to John Henry in the 1983 running of the Oak Tree Invitational, but it wasn't the French mare Zalataia who beat him as much as it was a new, sand-based turf course put in by Oak Tree's landlord, Santa Anita Park. It wasn't worth the money, the time, or the trouble. "You don't see a lot of sand growing at the beach, do you?" said Charlie Whittingham, who knew a disaster when he saw one. Five years later, the course was ripped out and replaced.

Here I should mention that the contractions have increased in strength, but not duration, according to the woman who should know. It might be time to give the doc a call.

Jack Robbins, respected doctor of veterinary medicine, is one of the original gang of seven Oak Tree directors who in 1969 established a fall racing season in Southern California. The others, all captains of business and industry, included Clement Hirsch, B.J. Ridder, Lou Rowan, William T. Pascoe, Harold Ramser, and J.T. Jones. Robbins likes to call himself the only working stiff in the bunch. But for purposes of this conversation, he is also father of four boys, starting with Jay Robbins, who was born in 1945.

"I was very nervous about the first one," Robbins said. "After watching our first baby born, I wanted to be a doctor - a real doctor. That experience always brings out the best in you."

Like "real" doctors, vets are always on call, especially in the 1950's, when they were so few and far between at the racetrack. On July 17, 1954, Robbins was at Hollywood Park, where client Wally Dunn was running a horse in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Maggie Robbins, already the mother of three boys, was otherwise engaged.

"That was Tommy, our last one," Jack Robbins said. "I was about three hours late getting to Huntington Hospital. The horse was Correspondent, but don't ask me to remember anything else."

As president of the Oak Tree Racing Association, Robbins runs a short meet that is vulnerable to any ripple in the local environment. With just 31 days this year, it is virtually impossible to compensate for a cluster of bad days because of extreme heat, a sudden autumn rainstorm, or man-made events, like the Dodgers in a World Series. Don't laugh, it's happened before.

"The Breeders' Cup always impacts us when it's not here in California," Robbins said. "We end up with all the best horses running just those first couple of weekends. But that's just part of racing today. I can only hope we do half as well as Del Mar did."

Hopefully, they will, because when Oak Tree does well, racing benefits. More than $18 million in contributions has been made by Oak Tree through the years, fulfilling its mandate as a nonprofit association based on horsemen helping horsemen. Of that total, nearly $4 million has gone to the University of California at Davis for veterinary research.

More contractions, and a bit more frequently now. Robbins, who witnessed the birth of his share of foals while running Laguna Seca Ranch near Monterey, offered one last drop of experience.

"You know how they have to pull those foals out sometimes," the good doctor said. "You got the chains ready and everything?"

Right. Make a note. Chains . . . for the father.