01/01/2004 12:00AM

At 77, Doc Harthill calls it a career

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ARCADIA, Calif. - For all the grand champions that Alex Harthill has handled during more than half a century as a Kentucky veterinarian - from Citation to Sunday Silence and a host of names in between - it was the ailing horse that toppled out of a Sallee van at Keeneland more than a year ago that has finally brought an end to Harthill's legendary career as a backstretch practitioner.

"The horse had West Nile," Harthill said this week from his Louisville farm. "It's a neuro-muscular disease. They lose all control, and not too many of them make it. I'd never seen it before - wouldn't have made any difference, he'd have fallen on me anyhow - but when he fell on me he broke both my legs and my back."

Harthill was 77 at the time, and while his reputation as a controversial character and outspoken horsemen's advocate attracted most of his public attention, he was still in daily demand from trainers both young and old, for everything from colics and shins to the most complicated of diagnoses.

Harthill struggled with his injuries for a year, to no avail.

"I haven't gotten any better," Harthill said. "Goes with getting old. A back injury is a tough thing for a veterinarian, because you've got to get down there where the problems are. It's got to where I just can't keep up."

Harthill was sounding a familiar tune. There is no retirement age at the racetrack. It takes a horse, a building, or maybe the quarter pole to fall on a guy before an exit is even remotely considered.

Such a respect for longevity differs from most professions, which lock in mandatory departure dates no matter what the circumstances. Horse racing is an open-ended endeavor that places great value on experience and tends to reward durability.

In the wider world, trainers like Barclay Tagg (66), Bobby Frankel (62), Wayne Lukas (68), Jonathan Sheppard (63), Bruce Headley (69), and Kathy Walsh (63) would be targeted by management for retirement packages and a gold watch. Allen Jerkens (74), Ron McAnally (71), and Warren Stute (82) already would be out to pasture, their wisdom wasting away. Think any of them are ready to hang it up? Fat chance, not with all the fast horses who live in their barns and benefit from their years in the game.

So it should come as no surprise that it took a horse to fall on Alex Harthill to convince him that he could no longer complete his appointed rounds, just as it took open heart surgery 2 1/2 years ago to knock the legs out from under Doc Jocoy, Harthill's veterinary colleague since they met in 1958.

"If it wasn't for my heart surgery, I'm certain that I'd still want to be out there at work in some way," Jocoy said from his Del Mar home. "The racetrack is like no other place. You feel like it's your family. You meet a neighbor on the street, and after 'Good morning' there's not much else to say. But I could run into a racetracker I barely know and talk for hours."

Jock Jocoy, who turns 78 in February, recalls the days when he would accompany Harthill in a single-engine plane, pasture-jumping from one Bluegrass farm to the next, making house calls to pin-fire young horses, examine mares - whatever needed to be done.

"I was from California, so it was very different for me, like something right out of 'National Velvet,' " Jocoy said.

"In my opinion - and I think I have a right to one - Alex Harthill was one of the best at all the things a vet needs to know. He could diagnose, treat, suture - he had perfect feel for all the mechanics of the work.

"After I'd put in 30 or 40 years as a practicing veterinarian, I still knew I didn't know it all," Jocoy added. "I was still learning. There wasn't a single day I was bored, and there wasn't a single day something didn't happened that I had to figure out. I made it my life, and so has Alex."

Harthill will continue to run his veterinary supply company from its landmark offices across the street from the Churchill Downs stable gate. He makes a monthly trip to France for a client in Chantilly, and, as an owner, he has his own small string of runners stabled at Churchill Downs.

"I'll still be out at my barn every day," Harthill said. "I've got four mares about to foal here at the farm pretty soon, and I've got four lovely 2-year-olds down in Texas right now with Ted Keefer, getting ready for Keeneland. He says they're doing well, and he's never lied to me yet."

In the meantime, Harthill's phone number will be found written on stable office door jambs and programmed into speed dials for a long time to come. Around Churchill Downs, "Call Doc Harthill" has been the accepted mantra for decades whenever a horse needs care, and old habits will die hard.

"In fact, Bernie Flint had a horse with a violent bowel impaction at three o'clock just the other morning," Harthill said. "I got up, went out there and treated him, and believe it or not he got well. Bernie didn't know I was retired, but he couldn't find anybody else."