ST. PETERSBURG — Robert Lambert had two phone calls to make.
One to David Tiano, chief of operations at Derby Lane. The other to his kennel manager-trainer, Alex Hall.
His message: "It has been a great run. But because of my health, it has to end … and I am sorry."
Lambert, 65, of Tallassee, Ala., took his doctor's advice and started the process of eliminating stress in his life. The first step, he said, was to dissolve his two-time kennel champion Red Oak Racing operation at Derby Lane. The move came with the swiftness of one of his greyhounds. After receiving test results for several health issues, which he declined to specify, on July 7 in Opelika, Ala., Lambert called Tiano and Hall. Red Oak was gone five days later.
"My doctor said, 'You just can't (work so much) anymore,' " Lambert said. "My family was with me and he said it right in front of them. They said, 'You heard what (the doctor) said.' "
Lambert, a 25-year greyhound veteran, brought his operation to Derby Lane on Sept. 10, 2010, replacing the roster spot vacated by John Filipelli, who now runs a kennel at Bluffs Run in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Lambert said some dog men initially questioned whether he had the caliber of greyhounds to be competitive at Derby Lane, but he proved them wrong.
Red Oak won back-to-back titles in 2013, had five top-five finishes, won five stakes races with three different trainers and finished with 1,929 victories. The Derby Lane crowns extended Lambert's streak of having won a title at every track where he has competed.
Hall helped secure the final three stakes wins, and is believed to be the youngest trainer in Derby Lane's 89 years to win his stakes finale debut (Flying Soriano in the $20,000 Fall Juvenile in 2012). Hall was 19 at the time, and had been with Red Oak only four months.
"Alex did a tremendous job," Lambert said. "I hired him when nobody else would give him a chance. He would be an asset to anybody who picked him up and used him as a trainer. A great, great kid."
Attempts to contact Hall were unsuccessful.
Derby Lane racing secretary Les Robison, plant superintendent Bill Bell and Tiano were invaluable assisting with Red Oak's departure, Lambert said. "They were as nice to me as anybody could be, and helped me expedite in getting out," he said. "There are not many tracks around that upper management even cares about you. They did care, and (Tiano) told me that if I ever wanted to come back, the doors were open and that I would have a place."
Lambert said he didn't sign the recent Derby Lane contract, but he did inform Tiano in June of his health issues. Lambert continues to have two bookings at Bestbet at Orange Park near Jacksonville, where he said he won the kennel title by 228 victories in 2013. Those operations will be overseen by Lambert's daughter, Emily Messer. Lambert sent 44 St. Petersburg dogs to Bestbet, and dispersed the remaining 24 to five Derby Lane kennels: Alderson, Abernathy, McAllister, Nova and Patriot.
"If my health doesn't get any better, I'll be out of the business at the end of the year," Lambert said. "Absolutely, I let (my health) go way too long. I knew things were going on. But in order to win at racing, you've got to be on top of it every day.
"I've got a wife (Martha) who I've been married to for 34 years, and a 4-year-old grandson that I want to see grow up. It was a great run and don't think that I take it lightly that I'm not (at Derby Lane). It just breaks my heart."
MORE DOGS: Vey Weaver, Derby Lane chairman of the board and president, will be inducted to the Greyhound Hall of Fame on Oct. 16 in Abilene, Kan., the National Greyhound Association has announced. The other inductees will be dog man Jack Sherck and greyhound Ea's Itzaboy.