Stylish King's gradual meltdown accented a bleak period for the Robbins barn, and there was really no reason to think things would change much the day an overgrown 2-year-old named Tiznow first walked into Robbins' life three summers ago.
A few weeks later at Del Mar, however, things did change. Robbins sent the son of Cee's Tizzy an easy three-eighths and instantly saw a boundless future in front of him. By the following spring, he had no doubts.
"Keep your fingers crossed," Robbins told his wife one morning after working Tiznow at Santa Anita. "I think we've got the best 3-year-old in America and nobody knows it."
To that point, the unknown colt hadn't even raced. Within months, however, Robbins transformed Tiznow into a national hero--and following his dramatic 2000 Breeders' Cup Classic decision over Giant's Causeway, he had his first champion.
He also had a horse whose competitive grit and dashing looks reached deep into the hearts of his followers. A steady flow of fan mail and gifts from admirers underscored the colt's appeal. His once-in-a-lifetime horse had become a celebrity, and Robbins felt Tiznow's supporters deserved to go along for the ride.
"Oh yeah, he knew that people loved him and they wanted to be a part of it," his wife said. "After the Breeders' Cup, Tiz started getting a lot of letters from people, so Jay wrote everybody a letter and he gave them pictures. He knew it was important to these people; it just wasn't frivolous."
For Robbins, though, the fame and fortune never compared to moments hidden from the limelight. When he arrived at the barn each morning, it was Tiznow's inquisitive face that always greeted him first. Oftentimes, Robbins found himself at his desk, gazing out the doorway, as he recalled, "just watching him watch things."
"Tiznow had tremendous personality, and he had that stall right outside Jay's office," Sandy Robbins explained. "There was a lot of interaction between them, and there wasn't really any sacrifice that was too great for Jay to make because he really loved him."
A bond had been forged, a tacit connection between horse and human. Throughout 2001, it was put to a stern test. When an untimely quarter crack surfaced last January, for instance, Robbins opted to stay home and watch over his star, bypassing a trip to New Orleans for the Eclipse Awards. He later heard Tiznow earn Horse of the Year honors via his wife's cell phone. But that was small potatoes compared to their agonizing summer, when a vexatious back injury nearly cost Tiznow his career--and pushed his trainer's skill to the max.
"I felt like this year I contributed more to his success than last year," said Robbins. "Last year was a relatively smooth year. This year, given the problems, I had to be more attentive, more observant with him all the time. I hope that that's a function of learning from the people that I worked for when I was younger.
"He's been very lucky," Robbins added deferentially. "It's almost like he was born under a lucky star. Everything's always kind of worked out for him."
Or perhaps he was simply in capable hands. A professed worrywart, Robbins walked a never-ending tightrope with Tiznow. Training him was not a matter of conditioning but rather cooperation, a constant challenge of finessing an eager colt whose morning antics ranged from curious to downright maddening. Robbins routinely doubled as psychologist, while McCarron's insight from the saddle--be it positive or otherwise--was readily welcomed.
"Jay is probably the most straightforward and frank trainer I've ever ridden for. Ever," McCarron stressed. "I want to be perfectly frank with everybody I ride for, but some trainers don't want to hear it. They don't want to hear bad news. All they want to hear are glowing reports. Jay wants to know the truth."
Sometimes, the news was grim. Somehow, Robbins dodged the bad back and cranky behavior and produced the champ for one final display of brilliance. In truth, Tiznow's resurrection, climaxed by a miraculous defense at the Breeders' Cup, will go down as one of the greatest feats of training the game has ever seen. It didn't come without a price, however.
"There was a lot more pressure this year," Robbins confessed. "It was more fun last year. That's why, in a way, I'm relieved that he's retired. But his 5-year-old year could have been far and away better than his 3- or 4-year-old year. I'll probably never train a horse as competitive as he is, as game as he is."
But he is not working the Turf Club crowd in search of new prospects. Though he has trained for such prominent owners as Jack Kent Cooke, Cecilia Straub-Rubens, Georgia Ridder, and Ernest Auerbach during his career, Robbins is a man who takes pride in devoting himself entirely to his horses. He has neither the energy nor the desire to play self-promoter.
"Maybe I should make a few inquiries or phone calls," he pondered. "I'm kind of like Buster Millerick. I always respected him. He never hustled for owners. And he did a lot with just so-so-bred horses. He was always my influence."
To Robbins, though, Millerick is a reminder of simpler days, a time when the racetrack was a closer-knit community, when the sport had a reassuring purity. There were the summertime ball games on Del Mar's diamond, where a training track now stands. There were the enjoyable holiday nights, when Robbins, his father, and his brother Don delivered cookies to different barns on Christmas Eve. And there were the fun times at Threewitt's barn, reveling in tales told by stable hands he knew as Lyin' Tom and Little John.
Instead, he now feels disenchanted by the sport's web of labor issues, inconsistent drug regulations, and decreased integrity, bothered by the reality that the training of Thoroughbreds has evolved into a numbers game. Though Robbins prefers to keep his own count low--"He's better off with a small group of horses, actually," said Dr. Jack Robbins. "He likes to give individual attention to every one of those things"--he admitted that with Tiznow gone, maintaining optimism is tough.
"It's going to be difficult for me to move on, frankly, right now with these horses I've got," he said. "Don't see quality 2-year-olds coming in, you know. We're going to have to look for lightning in a bottle again. His brother is far and away the best prospect."
Indeed, the aptly named Tizbud, a full sibling to both Tiznow and Budroyale, will soon make his way into the Robbins barn. Only time will tell, however, if the 3-year-old colt will be able to keep the flame burning. Meanwhile, Robbins trudges forward, keeping a hopeful eye towards the future. And ever so often, he'll pop in the tape of this year's Breeders' Cup Classic, allowing himself a momentary glimpse into yesterday, a chance to revisit the greatest moment of his life--and the horse who made it possible.
"Right after the race it hit me," recalled Robbins, his trembling lips betraying all feeling. "He'd been through so much this year. To see that was amazing."
To most, Robbins' work was just as extraordinary. Almost like a dream.