"Dabo" takes to Arlington Park's main track May 14
Clemson has long had a solid football team. The Tigers won 19 conference championships between 1896 and 1991, and even a national championship in 1981.
However, through the 1990s, they began to tail off. They failed to finish the season in the top 25 from 1994-1999, and even though they made four bowls during that time, they were routed on each occasion. The beginning of the 2000s brought a gradual upswing, but conference championships and national prominence still eluded them.
When Dabo Swinney assumed head coaching duties in 2008, Clemson not only recaptured the best of its history. The Tigers surpassed it. Clemson won the ACC championship in 2011, its first in 20 years. In 2014, Clemson defeated Ohio State, 40-35, in the 2014 Orange Bowl, its first BCS bowl victory.
The Tigers reached rarefied air during the 2015-2016 season. Swinney led them to a 14-1 record. That included an ACC championship and an appearance in the College Football Playoff National Championship, where they lost, 45-40, to Alabama. Swinney was named AP Coach of the Year.
Less than two months later, about a 600-mile drive northwest of Clemson, a dark bay or brown son of Temple City was born on an Illinois farm. As the foal grew, Clemson reached new heights. The Tigers won their first national title since 1981 and they became a regular participant in the College Football Playoff.
In February of 2018, that Illinois-bred Temple City foal got a name — Dabo.
To name a horse after Swinney suggests ambition. But when Dabo debuted at Arlington Park in August of 2018, the public ignored him, to the tune of 13-1 in an eight-horse field.
Early on, it looked like the betting public had it right. He was bumped in the opening jumps of the six-furlong race and was 18 lengths behind the leader before the field even hit the turn.
Five-sixteenths of a mile out, however, he began to swallow up ground like few horses do over the Arlington main track. A furlong out, he was still seven lengths from the front. He had passed a single horse. In the final furlong, he kept hurtling home on the outside and got up by a neck, over the odds-on favorite.
That electrifying rally caught trainer Dale Romans' eye, and soon the gelding was purchased to race for a partnership of West Point Thoroughbreds and Peacock Stable.
The equine wasn't the only Dabo to turn heads in 2018. As good as his Tigers had been for most of the 2010s, they were better than ever in the fall of 2018. They streaked to a 13-0 regular-season record, defeated Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, and then thrashed Alabama, 44-16, to win their second national championship in three years.
Since then, Dabo the horse has not quite reached the heights Swinney, but he has been very good at Arlington. His four wins include a decisive victory in the 2019 Bruce D. Memorial S., in which he made his trademark last-to-first run. The field he beat included third-place Lexitonian, already a Grade 3 winner, and most recently second in the Churchill Downs S. (G1).
Though Dabo’s best finish in three starts this year was a fourth in the Forego S. at Turfway Park, he will return to his favorite place May 14 — Arlington.
Just as playing Clemson has gotten a lot tougher in recent times, Dabo becomes just as imposing between the eighth pole and the wire at Arlington. The odds are good that a certain dark bay will be flying home on the outside.