Though Arlington Park may have been shuttered, longtime Chicagoland trainer Hugh Robertson has no plans to follow the city’s jewel of a racetrack into the sunset. Not when the 71-year-old has Grade 1-winning horse Two Emmys in the barn, and especially not when he knows exactly how lucky he is to be alive after surviving a stroke three years ago.
On Feb. 26, 2019, Robertson went to the Fair Grounds Racecourse in New Orleans, La., well before sunrise. He recalls sitting in his tack room and speaking to a friend when he felt a bit groggy, and so went to the ambulance to be checked out.
When the EMTs released him, stating only that his blood pressure was a bit high, Robertson attempted to walk back to his barn. Instead, he found himself walking directly into a pole.
Friends found Robertson and called his wife, a retired nurse, who immediately transported him to the hospital. Surgery was performed quickly thereafter.
“If they can operate right away they can usually relieve the results,” Robertson explained. “I was only in the hospital for three or four days.
“I knew I was a lot better off when I’d go into that rehab and see other stroke victims. I could always speak and didn’t have any paralysis, and the only thing I couldn’t do is stand on one leg with my eyes closed. So basically I made a complete recovery.”
Robertson admit that he has slowed down significantly in the years since his stroke, noting that his wife says he still ambles a bit when he walks. Luckily, his son Mac has been able to take the heaviest workload of the approximately 100 horses the two men oversee.
“My other two kids both work in Omaha, and have done pretty well staying away from racing,” said Robertson. “Mac and I do switch horses back and forth, but we hardly ever go to the same track at the same time because we don’t always get along! We’re both very opinionated.”
Though the elder Robertson is the co-owner of stable star Two Emmys alongside a couple from his native Nebraska, he has occasionally sent the gelding to race out of his son’s stable.
“I don’t hesitate sending everything to Mac because he does a good job,” Robertson added. “He’s the one that can do more work, after all.”
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The ascension of Two Emmys has helped keep Robertson in the game.
A $4,500 yearling purchase in 2017, Two Emmys developed into a G1 winner in last year’s Mr. D Stakes, formerly known as the Arlington Million.
“He was small, and a June foal, and English Channels are late developing, so people at the sales don’t really look at those horses,” Robertson said, explaining Two Emmys’ bargain purchase price. “He moved good. I watch horses and see how they move when they’re yearlings, and I like to buy those kinds of horses because usually they can run a little.”
Though he’d liked the gelding ever since he was a yearling, Robertson didn’t go into the Mr. D thinking he had the winner.
“I thought he’d run third,” the trainer said candidly. “I thought there were two better horses than him in there, the Chad Brown horse (Domestic Spending) and the European entry (Armory, for Aidan O’Brien). Still, I didn’t think we should be 25-1, and when he got loose on the lead it was incredibly exciting.”
Two Emmys held off the late run of multiple Grade 1 winner Domestic Spending by a neck.
“I never thought I’d have a horse in the Million, and then when I do, it’s not a million [dollars],” Robertson told TVG’s Scott Hazelton following the first G1 win of his career.
“It’s nice,” he continued, “but I wish they’d keep running.”
This year, while Two Emmys have added another graded stakes victory to his resume in the G2 Muniz Memorial at the Fair Grounds, that closure of Arlington Park has put a bit of a question mark on the rest of the year.
“It’s left us in a bit of a lurch, for sure,” Robertson said. “I’ll go back for Hawthorne’s three month meet, and then when they shut down I’m hopefully gonna go home to Nebraska and take two months off, spend time with the family, while Mac takes everything to Minnesota.
“I hope to keep training for a couple more years, if my health doesn’t go south. I’d like to have 20 horses, which I figure I can handle so long as Mac doesn’t need help with too much overflow!”