12/03/2014 3:34PM

Hovdey: A vanishing breed dwindles to a precious few


Among the items tucked into the corners of the well-worn wallet carried by Dr. Jack Robbins was a yellowed past performance clipped from the Feb. 4, 1961, West Coast edition of Daily Racing Form . The horse was Sister Antoine, a 4-year-old daughter of Royal Serenade. The race was the Santa Margarita Handicap.

“Take a look at the dates,” Doc would say, and you would comply, noting that the filly was owned by Ethel Jacobs and trained by her husband, Hirsch Jacobs, who was inducted into the racing Hall of Fame in 1958.

Sister Antoine ended 1960 on a high note, winning a stakes race at Pimlico on Dec. 3 (the names of the races were not listed in the PP’s those days, but it was the Gallorette) in her 33rd start of the year. She commenced her 1961 campaign on Jan. 12 (finishing fourth), ran again on Jan. 25 (eighth), then on Jan. 28 (sixth), and again on Feb. 1 (third). Three days later, in the Santa Margarita, Sister Antoine came from dead last in a field of 16 to win a five-horse blanket finish by half a length at 23-1.

“Five races in 24 days, and Jacobs wins the big one,” Doc would say with a chuckle. “They’d hang a trainer if he tried that today.”

Doc Robbins loved Sister Antoine, and for the decades after she was gone he continued to love the idea of Sister Antoine. He’d make Xerox copies of her past performances and show them to friends. He would fish out the yellowed clip and wave it under the nose of the occasional trainer, taunting them, daring them to figure out what Jacobs knew.

This was Jack Robbins at his best, challenging the conventional thinking, making the comfortable fret. He died last Saturday, at age 93, which means he straddled any number of eras in the Thoroughbred continuum as not only a widely respected practicing veterinarian, but also as a racehorse breeder and owner, and as an industry leader who put what money he could wherever his heart led.

“We knew each other from the early days of the American Association of Equine Practitioners,” said Dr. Robert Copelan. “By the late 1950s I was in Chicago, and around that time Jack was partners in a filly named Honey’s Gem. He called to tell me she was coming for a race, and would I help look after her while she was there.”

Honey’s Gem won the 1959 Beverly Handicap at Washington Park and set an American record of 1:34 for a mile on the dirt, which for Robbins was a means to an even better end.

“Jack helped sustain the AAEP at that time with a great contribution from the winnings of Honey’s Gem,” Copelan said. “As I recall it was at that point we got to be good friends.”

Among the several disadvantages of living into the 90s, besides the gradual failure of the flesh, is the loss of your own generation. Robbins would look around to realize that Charlie Whittingham was gone. Noble Threewitt was gone. Clement Hirsch, Lou Rowan, and the rest of his fellow founding directors of the Oak Tree Racing Association were gone.

But not Bob Copelan, who is still putting on the surgical scrubs at the age of 88 at Kentucky’s Rood & Riddle Clinic. Robbins and Copelan were on the phone often.

“We were always on good terms, although he never missed an opportunity to take a good-natured crack at me, and I responded in kind,” Copelan said this week, as he digested the loss of his friend.

“We were both past presidents of the AAEP,” Copelan noted. “In the annual report they would publish the names of all the past presidents, with those who had passed away receiving an asterisk. Right up to the last time he called me, the first thing he said was, ‘Are you still alive? I thought you’d have the asterisk by now.’ ”

Robbins and Copelan are two of only a handful of veterinarians recognized in 82 years as the Thoroughbred Club of America’s Honored Guest.

“Jack preceded me, and I was in the audience,” Copelan said. “Well, it’s a bully pulpit you know. While he was talking he made the statement that he was against all race-day medication and added, ‘Are you listening to me Bobby Copelan?’ He had me tied down. We didn’t agree on that, but there was nothing I could do. And I never had a chance to get back at him.”

Copelan and Robbins, let’s face it, qualify as celebrity vets. While Robbins could include horses like Citation, Native Diver, and John Henry among his clientele, Copelan could counter with Secretariat. As a racehorse owner and farm manager, Robbins could lay claim to one of the greatest upsets of the 1960’s when the California-bred Most Host shocked reigning Horse of the Year Damascus in the 1968 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita. Copelan, for his part, lent his name to one of the leading 2-year-olds of 1982 when Copelan, a son of Susan’s Girl, tore through the top races in the East.

“I was always astounded at the things that went on in his life,” Copelan said. “Playing bridge with Angie Dickinson, friends with her husband, Burt Bacharach, parties with Greer Garson. And he talked about it like is was the most natural thing."

No one could begrudge a life lived well over 93 years, and Jack Robbins left with very few regrets. Still, for his friends, after so long in his orbit you kind of get used to a fellow being around.

“Isn’t that the truth,” Copelan said. “We were great friends, and I knew he wasn’t well. I’m old now, and when I heard he was gone I frankly wept.”