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Remembering Woodside's Bob O'Neil: A long and happy life

 

Maggie Mah of Woodside knew Bob O'Neil as a friend, neighbor, fellow horse person and member of the board of directors of the Woodside Trail Club.

Bob O'Neil moved on to his final reward recently at the age of 92.

He attributed his health and longevity to being happy. "I have everything I want," he would say, echoing the Irish blessing, "May you live as long as you want and never want as long as you live."

Family and friends miss this man who had a twinkle in his eye and a smile for everyone. His warmth, generosity and devotion to the horse community will be remembered for a long time to come.

Robert Francis O'Neil was born Feb. 23, 1924, and raised in San Mateo at a time when horses were still very much a part of the landscape.

Bob watched as Bay Meadows Race Track was being built near his boyhood home. It opened in 1934 at the height of horse racing's popularity. The place would prove to be an irresistible and enduring attraction the setting for a large portion of Bob's life and the foundation of a lifelong passion for horses.

His first visits to the track were clandestine with 10 year-old Bob finding ways to sneak onto the grounds to breathe in the exciting atmosphere. "This place used to vibrate, it just pulsed when you had great horses here," he recalled in a 2008 interview. "You could feel the whole world shake."

Bob acquired legitimate access after he got a job walking horses for a quarter each. As time went on, he spent more and more time at the track. When he wasn't in school, his parents knew where he was but Bob said they didn't worry.

"They knew I wasn't smoking, drinking or raising hell with girls," he told a reporter. "I was with the horses all the time."

He was there to see history being made with the races of legendary horses like Seabiscuit and Citation and Racing Hall of Fame jockeys Willie Shoemaker and Woodside resident Russell Baze.

Proud of his Irish heritage and blessed with "The Gift of Gab," it didn't take much coaxing to get Bob O'Neil to tell a story. When the opportunity arose, his eyes would twinkle and with a voice crackling with energy, the tale was launched.

One of his favorites had to do with his time in the military during World War II. Having enlisted in the Navy, he was trained as an aerographer's mate and sent to the Pacific theater to monitor and forecast weather conditions critical to naval operations. It was a long way from Bay Meadows but a shoebox of horse manure was sent by a friend to remind him of what he was missing back home.

Completing college after the war at San Jose State and UC Santa Barbara, Bob gravitated back to Bay Meadows and started his career as a pari-mutuel clerk, a job he would continue to hold even after the track closed in 2008.

He was known as the "Dean" of this profession and would often remark that he loved what he did and couldn't imagine doing anything else. He outlived the place that had had such a profound impact on his life and been his home away from home. As it was closing and about to be demolished, Bob reflected,"It's like a death."

It was during his early years in pari-mutuel that Bob acquired the nickname, "Boots." There are two (possibly more) versions of how the name came about. One that is often told is that it was bestowed on him by a supervisor who, managing six people, three of whom were named "Bob," looked down at Mr. O'Neil's shiny cowboy boots and christened him "Boots."

Another has it that Bob's winning smile was like that of William Holden in the 1952 movie, "Boots Malone."

As to which one is the real story, its up to the reader to decide. Either way, "Boots" would go along with whichever one was being told at the time. And both are good so it doesn't matter.

His long association with the track and voluble personality made him a great resource and subject for several documentary films including "Seabiscuit: The Story Begins in San Francisco" and "The Last Days at Bay Meadows."

After moving to Woodside in 1967, Bob and his best gal, Katy Farquharson, started raising and breeding Thoroughbreds on his property. Many of them would go on to race and win at Bay Meadows and elsewhere.

Bob studied bloodlines carefully, looking for specific traits that might create a great racehorse. Regardless of how they were to turn out, Bob delighted in the arrival of a new foal and clucked over each of them like a mother hen. About being able to live where he had his horses, he said: "I can hear them running at night. That's a beautiful sound."

Bob and his Quarter Horse, Delta, became stalwart members of what was then the Los Altos Hunt (now "Hounds") and hauled to the hunt meets with an ancient International van christened "The Green Machine."

Recalling those early days, longtime friend and former hunt member Joan Wolfgang said: "Bob was a delightful leprechaun and very generous. When I was without a horse to hunt, he loaned me Delta such a pleasure, unlike the hotheads I usually rode."

Bob's interest in horses extended beyond what they could do in terms of performance or utility. He would consider things from the animal's perspective and speculate about what it was like to do the things that humans asked of them. Once, while doing me the favor of trailering my horse, he asked if I had ever ridden "back there." No, I hadn't, to which he replied, "It's a wonder they ever go in."

Woodside's unique and wonderful trails were a special area of Bob's interest to which he devoted countless hours. After joining The Woodside Trail Club in 1967, he served as treasurer and membership chair for nearly 50 years. Since Trail Club board meetings were often held at his home, Bob participated while one of several contented felines occupied his lap.

He welcomed new members into the club by way of "Meet and Greet" breakfasts at Buck's, Bob's favorite spot for morning coffee.

His interest in preserving and enhancing the trails was tempered with pragmatism. "Don't build a trail just to build it," he remarked about a proposed section. "It has to be connected and go somewhere."

Riding his horse, Rusty, Bob was featured with his friend and fellow trail champion, the late Howard Boone, in an episode of the TV show "Bay Area Back Roads" that focused on Woodside's extensive network of equestrian trails.

Bob supported a wide range of activities in the Woodside area with energy and enthusiasm for the equestrian life. He loved being surrounded by horses and people, especially people who loved horses.

"Bob always had fun," recalled Kay Hitch, a longtime friend and fellow equestrian. Whether he was announcing entrants and winners at local horse shows, working a ride stop on Day of the Horse, heading up the snack bar crew at Mounted Patrol, or serving as jump judge at Guernsey Field (now The Horse Park), he was having a good time doing it.

Bob's many contributions have been recognized by the town of Woodside with the 2009 Trails Legacy Award and in 2012 by the Mounted Patrol of San Mateo County with the Outstanding Horseperson-Citizen Award. Plans to dedicate a section of trail in Bob's honor within the town of Woodside's trail network are in progress.

Bob O'Neil lived a long and happy life and made other people's lives happier on his journey. He will live on in the good work he did for the community and remembered always by everyone whose lives he touched.

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