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Updated on 09/16/2011 7:15AM
Call him Doctor Derby
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Alex Harthill, doctor of veterinary medicine and bona fide racetrack legend, will celebrate his 77th birthday on Tuesday of Kentucky Derby week the same way he has celebrated his birthday for the past 54 years. At some point, it will be a very good bet that Doc Harthill will put his hands on the Derby winner.
This is nothing unusual. In fact, it has become old hat. From Citation in 1948 to Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, Harthill's presence in the Derby winner's corner has been established as a likely fact of life.
But don't make the mistake of calling him doctor to the stars. In addition to any number of Derby contenders, Harthill will spend his Derby week administering to more than his share of $10,000 claimers, recalcitrant maidens, and 2-year-olds still too silly to know what's in store.
"I was visiting Alex a couple years ago during the Derby," said Dr. Doug Herthel, a leading West Coast veterinary surgeon who counts himself a friend and admirer. "On Derby Day, he excused himself to go to the backstretch. He said it was nice and quiet back there, and he had to tube-worm 30 horses. I couldn't believe it. It's hard enough to get a vet to do that any day, let alone Derby Day."
On top of his extensive practice, for the past three years Harthill has been a political lightning rod as president of the Kentucky HBPA, leading his group to battle over such hot-button issues as video slots at local tracks and a national medication policy. For a man in his mid-70's, it appears to be a formidable load.
Harthill wears it lightly, though. And why not? He is fueled by the inexhaustible aid of his wife, Mary Alice, as well as an abiding love for Thoroughbreds, and a desire to limit the pain and discomfort they experiences through racing. And he does this while lugging around the reputation of being Dr. Alex Harthill, a name fraught with both controversy and giddy accomplishment.
"You gain a lot of perspective on who you're dealing with when you look at the 1968 issue of Sports Illustrated with Dancer's Image on the cover," said Dr. Scot Waterman, head of the NTRA task force on medication. "Inside there's a full-page picture of Dr. Alex Harthill."
"It's nothing I set out to do," Harthill said, sitting in his museum of an office, located right across the street from the Churchill Downs stable entrance. "In fact, just the opposite."
Harthill doomed himself to a lifetime in the spotlight from the start, long before his name became associated as attending or consulting vet to such Derby winners as Carry Back, Northern Dancer, Lucky Debonair, Bold Forbes, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Ferdinand, and Sunday Silence.
Harthill was becoming a household name in racing circles long before he was among the vets who tried in vain to save Ruffian's life, before he was acquitted on bribery charges in a New Orleans court in 1956, and before he was questioned and subsequently fined in connection with the phenylbutazone positive and disqualification of the 1968 Derby winner, Dancer's Image.
Harthill's profile was high from the moment he graduated from Ohio State's veterinary college and went to work for the Calumet Farm horses of Ben and Jimmy Jones. Citation was the star of the stable at the time, and the toast of the 1948 Derby. Calumet Derby winners Ponder, Hill Gail, Iron Liege, and Tim Tam followed, as did Forward Pass, the colt who was moved to first upon the disqualification of Dancer's Image.
"Ponder survived getting stuck with a pitchfork when he was 2," Harthill recalled. "Hill Gail was a wild horse. All he knew was run. Broke an ankle in his next race. Citation? The only thing Citation needed was his teeth done. He was truly a great horse."
By then, Harthill had already seen his share. A third generation vet, he was born on April 30, 1925, above his father's clinic at Seventh and Green Street in Louisville. Dr. Henry C. Harthill treated horses, hogs, cows - just about anything with four legs and a desperate owner.
"I remember my dad waking me up and making me go to work with him on Christmas day," Harthill recalled. "That was the only day the horses didn't work out at Cave Hill Cemetery, the biggest cemetery in Louisville. So that was the only day he'd be able to go out there and float their teeth, and give them a worm ball. I looked forward to it, because I enjoyed being with him."
A yellowed newspaper clipping tacked to the door jamb leading to one of the maze of offices at Harthill's laboratory and veterinary supply bears the image of Dr. Henry Harthill and trainer Earl Sande standing at the stall of 1938 Kentucky Derby prerace favorite Stagehand. According to the caption, there is concern that an illness would keep Stagehand out of the Derby. It did.
"Back in those days, believe me, the Derby wasn't near as big as it is now," Harthill said. "I mean, it was big if you lived around here. But Louisville was just a wide place in the road at that time.
"My first Derby was Omaha, 1935. The horses walked right across the center field - no such thing as an infield crowd in those days. We had a governor then, Ruby Laffoon, a real character. He was sitting in the box next to us. I can still hear him hollering, 'Oma-hay win it! Oma-hay!' He was so dumb he couldn't even say Omaha."
Harthill's first brush with a great horse had nothing to do with Thoroughbreds. One of his father's clients owned Greyhound, the most famous trotter of the 1930's. A portrait of Greyhound looks down from a wall at The Harthill Co. It is not alone.
Harthill surrounds himself with memorabilia. Photographs drip off the walls. Beneath a window stands a life-size cardboard version of his friend and hero, Bill Shoemaker, used in a long-ago ad campaign. The couch where he takes his daily nap is pilled high with trade journals and current veterinary texts. A corner of the bookshelf is crammed full of ancient medicines in odd vials, all tools of the veterinary trade a half-century ago. On a corner of his desk is a bronze of Forego, three-time Horse of the Year, with a real rubber band wrapped around its tail.
"Another way to treat a bad bleeder," Harthill explained. "Wrap their tail and the blood runs away from the lungs. Of course, you've got to unwrap it right away, or else you might slough the tail."
Harthill learned his trade in an era in which there was no penicillin for veterinary work, and only the most rudimentary anesthesia for surgeries. He comes from a time when Doan's Pills and mashed calves' brains were used as bleeder treatment, when heroin was rubbed on the tongue of a horse (but only after it was tested for efficacy by a handy addict), and when even a simple injection was a calculated risk because needles could not be sterilized.
"I remember Lawrin stepped on a nail just prior to the Derby in the shed row and had to get a tetanus shot," he said, harking back to 1938. "Guys then hated to give a shot. A horse would get an infection, sometimes more often than not. All you heard around the racetrack was, 'Lawrin won't run no good. He stepped on a nail and had to get a shot.' " In fact, he won. Horses were euthanized for fractures that are routinely repaired today.
Home concoctions were common. Nearly every trainer had his stock of unmarked bottles. Vets at least were able to interject some semblance of medical science into the prevailing backstretch voodoo.
Drawing on such a history and coming from such a place, it is no wonder that Harthill shows little patience for a national medication policy that would limit the right to treat horses while taking advantage of all that prudent technology will allow.
Then there are Harthill's detractors, who would suggest that Doc is just looking to cash another bet.
"I do like a gamble now and then," Harthill said with a grin. "But there's no way on earth I could have bet as much as they say I do. It's not humanly possible. I guess it's all part of the mystique."
At an age when most of his contemporaries have settled into retirement, Harthill finds himself back in the news on a regular basis, defending Kentucky's raceday medication policies as a humane and honest way to conduct a sport that spends most of its time ducking the realities of racehorse physiology.
"If you're going to be a veterinarian your job is to practice veterinary medicine," Harthill said. "The horse should be the primary thing in a veterinarian's life. To ask a horse to run when he's not doing well isn't fair. All I'm asking for is anti-inflammatories and anti-bleeding medicine."
Harthill is also asking his Kentucky colleagues to stand firm against what appears to be a growing national consensus to adopt a set of recommendations developed by the American Association of Equine Practitioners. Dr. Waterman of the Lexington-based NTRA office said that the position of the Kentucky HBPA has not affected the work of his task force.
"The sticking points are primarily over the RCI class 4 and 5 medications," Waterman said, referring to the list of controlled, legal therapeutics. "I think the fact that here in Kentucky you can give any class 4 or 5 in any dosage level in any combination up to four hours before the race is an issue with the rest of the country."
It is hypocrisy, contends Harthill, to treat legal therapeutics in such a manner. Such restrictions, he says, are done for purposes of public relations, and at the expense of the horse.
"It's the most unnatural thing in the world, what we ask these horses to do," he continued. "They're locked in a stall most of the day, exposed to respiratory ailments from horses shipping in from all over the country. Even putting shoes on them is unnatural. It's usually done by someone who doesn't even know how to make a horse level. And these 2-year-olds we're selling now, asking them for their life, they're just little babies!
"I know everything gets abused," he added. "You're not talking to a Johnny-come-lately. I've been there. And I will compromise. But I don't want them to take away our medication. It would be a terrible thing to do to our horses."
"I understand where Dr. Harthill is coming from," said Dr. Jerry Black, a former racetrack practitioner and current president of the AAEP. "He has very strong opinions about medication. Our main focus is on the fact that it would benefit both racing and the welfare of the horse if we had a uniform medication policy, and we feel the policy we've adopted is in line with the majority of racing jurisdictions.
"Some reports would suggest we're proposing no-medication rules," Black added. "Of course that's not true. We're looking at therapeutic medication on the racetrack as an absolute necessity. The question is how much is necessary on race day."
Harthill will continue to argue the point, while at the same time making no apologies for the way the game used to be played, when drug tests were rudimentary and edges were there to be taken. His tales of the past are matter of fact, pieces of history served up without judgment.
"There was this trainer at the end of his rope," Harthill said. "Diagnosed with cancer and didn't have any insurance. Nothing to leave his wife. He said Doc, can you help me. I've got two horses, and all they need is touching up a little and they'll make it. So I gave him something. Both horses won, and he cashed his bets.
"A few days later, the stewards called him in and said, 'This test doesn't look too good.' He said, 'Hell, I could have told you that,' and told 'em the whole story, except for leaving my name out. He said, 'I'm sorry I did it. But I had to do it for my wife.' "
Harthill tells such tales without pause. He has precious little time for anyone who does not own up to racing's colorful past, as a gambling game played by the occasionally unsavory.
"Everything went through a transition period of being detected," Harthill said. "The thing everyone wanted to find out was what didn't show at the time. It was just part of the game, ever since I can remember. Everybody was looking for an edge. I don't care who it was. A trainer would say, 'Don't get me caught, but keep me worried.' "
What, then, is his definition of the veterinarian's role?
"A lot of guys gauge themselves on the fees they collect," Harthill said. "I hate to say that, but there it is. I look at a good vet as someone who can answer the question, did I do that horse some good? And the horse will tell you. He really will."
One of them, according to Harthill, was Northern Dancer. As Harthill recalls it, the colt had a bleeding problem as the 1964 Derby approached, and trainer Horatio Luro consulted his old pal the doctor for a possible solution. Lasix, a diuretic descendant of calves' brain and Doan's Pills, was just making its way into the game at the time. Harthill was an early advocate of the medication, which is now used by about 95 percent of all racehorses.
"Security was following me, though, so I got a vet I knew from out of town to come along with me," Harthill said. "I told him I was going to turn to the right, and would he go that way and take this little syringe down to barn 24, stall 23, and give this to that horse. There would be a guy there called Will. He'd be waiting.
"So he did it, while the gendarmes followed me. They were following the mystique!"
Harthill smiled. He didn't really feel all that mysterious. In fact, he prefers to be considered nothing more than a horse-loving small-town vet, whose fondest wish is that people stop kidding themselves about the issue of drugs in racing.
"Therapeutics might help a horse run as fast as he's capable of running on a given day," Harthill said. "But not any faster. They're an equalizer. And besides, it's not fair to ask the public to bet on a sore horse."