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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Echoes of Memory

By force of habit, I always check pedigrees for big race winners—it’s just an extension of similar genealogical study I liked to undertake as a kid when studying royal families and the ilk (total history geek, I know). So, I was intrigued to see an old favorite in the damlines of both Hong Kong Mile winner Good Ba Ba and runner-up Able OneJ.O. Tobin.

For those of you familiar with the Golden Age of Racing in the 1970s, J.O. Tobin needs no introduction. For others, he’s less familiar, but enjoys his special niche in racing lore.

A Maryland-bred, J O Tobin was champion two-year-old in England in 1976, winning three in England (including the G2 Champagne and Richmond stakes), and finished third in the G1 Grand Critérium—to subsequent French two-year-old champion Blushing Groom. After the retirement of his European trainer Sir Noel Murless, San Francisco-based owner George Pope Jr. returned him to America, and turned him over to trainer Johnny Adams. As a three-year-old, J.O. Tobin missed the Santa Anita and Hollywood derbies, but won the grassy 8-furlong Coronado Handicap at Hollywood Park on April 30. He bypassed a run in the Kentucky Derby in order to take on Derby winner Seattle Slew in his home-state Preakness. He finished a troubled fifth in the nine-horse field.

Wisely skipping the Belmont Stakes, J.O. Tobin shipped back to California where he set a course record in a 9-furlong grass event. In his next race, with Bill Shoemaker up—and a crowd of 68,115 in attendance—he sprang one of the sport’s biggest upsets, crushing the 1977 Swaps Stakes in near world record time, leading wire-to-wire—and handing newly-crowned Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew his first lifetime loss.

In 1978, under Hall of Fame trainer Laz Barrera, J.O. Tobin was co-winner (with Dr. Patches) of the Eclipse champion sprinter award. He retired with 12 wins in 21 starts. Like his sire, Kentucky Derby winner Never Bend, he stood at Spendthrift Farms—alongside Seattle Slew and Foolish Pleasure—beginning in 1979. In October 1992 he was moved to Texas and then, apparently, New Mexico, where he died in 1994.

A stunningly handsome black horse, J.O. Tobin was a disappointment at stud, but there were a few quality horses produced by his daughters, including 1993 Eclipse champion sprinter Cardmania, and 2004 Equus (South Africa) champion sprinter Tobe Or Nottobe. And now milers Able One and Good Ba Ba—how fitting a tribute to an oft-forgotten horse.

This is why I love the sport—its history, the continuity of beloved horses through their bloodlines, and the genuinely joyful memories they recall.