By Phil Combest

"Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
-- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

 
My friend, my brother, Bob Umphrey died Jan. 2 at 53. A massive stroke and heart attack ended a life too soon.

That barely begins to scratch the surface of it. There are men and women who, when they pass, leave a hole in the universe. Bob was one of those people. I'm certain anyone who ever spent any time with him would agree.

He wasn't just a great racing secretary, a great husband, a terrific cook, the most loyal friend you'd ever conceive, and diehard Florida Gator fan; he was also a man who ate life whole. Then went back for seconds.

Was he perfect? Oh no. Moderation was never his strong suit. And that trait both defined and, occasionally, bedeviled him.

But take a trip to the backside of any track where Bob ever worked. Ask the trainers, owners, riders, or grooms (which is where he started) about Bob. Here's what will happen. There'll be a pause, a grin, and a shake of the head, and then the verbal response will always be something along the lines of, "He's amazing."

And he was, in every possible sense of the word.

Bob was responsible for some of the most significant advances in the game over the past 25 years. He literally put Calder on the map. That little summer track in Miami was just awarded its first grade I race. That only happened because year after year, Bob kept calling, cajoling, insisting, browbeating, and hustling.

He and I both grew up as racetrack brats and he never forgot what his dad, Gene, taught him: It's all about the horses and the men and women who tend them. That's what racing is.

Of course, things are changing radically these days and maybe the track isn't ever going to be what it was when we were kids. But while Bob was here, he fought the good fight to make us all remember that even though slots and concerts and giveaways are the norm nowadays, the real purpose of this game comes only when the starting bell rings.

When he was racing secretary at Hollywood in the 1980s, Bob sometimes drove owner Marje Everett crazy with his "unorthodox" ways of making races. And his sometimes lavish use of the company credit card. One year, a new stakes race was on the books and the nominations weren't exactly pouring in because some of the trainers were leery of the distance. So, Bob invited his buddy Charlie Whittingham out to dinner at their favorite haunt, Taormino's. I was at the dinner early. We all enjoyed a couple of glasses of excellent wine. Lies and stories were exchanged. And then I had to smile when Bob ultimately conned Charlie into grudgingly making a couple of nominations...just to get the ball rolling. Charlie barked gruffly, "All right, Umphrey. Put 'em in."

I had a late appointment, so I left. Bob and Charlie ordered their meals and another bottle of even better, more expensive wine. It wasn't long until Charlie came up with a couple more nominations. Dessert arrived, and afterward, Vincent, the restaurant owner, appeared with a bottle of extra special brandy. The type that if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it. The three men sat there for a time savoring the brandy, then Charlie glanced over at Bob one last time and snapped, "Aw, what the hell. Put Ferdinand in. Let's see if he can go that far." He could and he did.

I loved Bob. He and his cherished wife, Janet, and their "son," Mel, who is far more human than dog, are my second family. Further, his sister, K.C., and her son, Kevin, meant the world to Bob and were never far from his thoughts.

To paraphrase the poet above, did Bob contradict himself? Of course he did. All men of great stride do. But the reason is always the same. Bob was large. He did contain multitudes. And we were all lucky to have had him for even this long.

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