12/31/2015 1:40PM

Hovdey: Chiropractor's whole life has been an adjustment

Benoit & Associates
Chiropractor (right) wins the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby. He faces older horses in the San Gabriel on Saturday.

At first glance, it would appear as if the freshly turned 4-year-old Chiropractor will be facing the toughest test of his life on Saturday when he is thrown in against such grizzled veterans as Obviously, Bal a Bali, and Big John B in the $200,000 San Gabriel Stakes at nine furlongs on the Santa Anita grass.

Not so.

For Chiropractor, a chestnut son of Kitten’s Joy, just about everything that has happened to him since he turned 2 has been gravy. That includes being gelded, recovering from a set of cracked shins, and a seven-race campaign in 2015 that ended with a Grade 1 victory in his stakes debut.

“We really should have lost him as a yearling,” said Craig Bernick, president of owner Glen Hill Farm. “We never had a horse injured like he was recover and make it to the races, let alone become a Grade 1 winner.”

As a result, Chiropractor has taken his place in a long line of major Glen Hill Farm stakes winners campaigned by Bernick’s grandfather Leonard Lavin, which includes Convenience, Relaunch, Uniformity, Header Card, Banned, and Marketing Mix. Lavin, 96, and an industry leader for half a century, will receive the Eclipse Award of Merit on Jan. 16 at Gulfstream Park.

Chiropractor is not just Lavin’s latest Grade 1 winner, which happened in the Hollywood Derby at Del Mar on Nov. 28. He is a Grade 1 winner by the nation’s leading turf sire and out of the Theatrical mare Eversmile, who already had produced the Haskell Invitational winner Coil. There are more valuable pedigrees, but not many.

All that was shoved into the background on a spring morning in 2013 when Eversmile’s yearling colt was found down in his grassy paddock and unable to rise. Hap Proctor, Glen Hill’s farm manager and the brother of Glen Hill trainer Tom Proctor, sounded the alarm.

“I remember walking down the hill to the training barn, and Hap was driving up the hill,” Bernick said. “I could see by his face something was very wrong.”

The strapping young colt was in a stall, virtually helpless.

“We don’t really know what happened to him, whether he got in an accident or ended up straddling a fence and hurt himself getting free,” Bernick said. “Whatever it was, it was a pretty major injury. He was basically a two-legged horse. He would get up on his front legs and then try to get a back leg underneath him. When that became too painful, he would try the other back leg and then go back and forth, back and forth. We thought initially that he would have to be put down because he just couldn’t live like that.”

The injury was traced to the colt’s pelvis and spine, which required the kind of therapy that only time and patience could provide.

“He was locked up in a stall for six months, then hand-walked for three more months before he was turned out,” Bernick said. “Dr. Garry Dulgar, a chiropractor, worked on him every week for a year. When he finally went to the track at Arlington Park, he shin-bucked, which meant he got some more time off. But by the time he was back in training at Fair Hill, they just loved him.”

By that time, the son of Kitten’s Joy also had a name that only made sense given the role played by his primary therapist. Bernick wanted to call him Dr. Dulgar, following in a tradition of horses like Hall of Famer Dr. Fager, named for the neurosurgeon who saved John Nerud’s life, and Dr. Caton, a stakes winner named for the neurosurgeon who did likewise for Jeff Lukas after his collision with Tabasco Cat.

Dulgar demurred, however, and the farm settled for the more generic Chiropractor, which works just fine. The chiropractic science of diagnosis and structural manipulation has become broadly integrated into the racehorse world, allowing athletes to be treated for certain aches and injuries without invasive surgery or aggressive medication.

The proof, at least in this case, is Chiropractor, who made his first start May 16 in a maiden grass race at Pimlico on a day when the rest of the racing world was transfixed by the Preakness and another 3-year-old named American Pharoah. Chiropractor finished fourth and was back in the barn, fed and dry, by the time the torrential rain hit Old Hilltop and American Pharoah skipped easily to victory in the second leg of the Triple Crown.

At some point during his recovery, Chiropractor was gelded, which sounds like cash down the tube.

“It’s natural for colts to be studdish,” Bernick said. “We wanted to prevent as much as possible any chance of reinjury. We never dreamed he’d be a Grade 1 winner, but I don’t think that if we hadn’t gelded him, he ever would have made it to the races.”

Chiropractor won a maiden race at Delaware Park in his second start, then turned in four good efforts in allowance company in California before Tom Proctor and Bernick tossed him into the Hollywood Derby. They were rewarded with a game victory in a three-way photo at the end of the 1 1/4 miles. Om, the impressive winner of the opening-day Mathis Brothers Mile at Santa Anita, finished third.

Now it’s time to find out if Chiropractor can take his place among the stakes-class elders of the division in the San Gabriel.

“It’s a tough race, and he’s giving good horses weight,” Bernick said. “But I really never thought he would make it this far. For all the time he spent in his stall, he never turned sour. He figured out how to get around, and he seemed to get better every day of his life. Now, thanks to the people at the farm and Tom and his staff in California and at Fair Hill, he’s turned into a really good horse. And this was a yearling who couldn’t walk.”