On the morning of July 8, the word "irreplaceable" kept bouncing around the head of Old Friends founder Michael Blowen as he thought about the previous night's death of prominent Central Kentucky veterinarian Doug Byars, D.V.M.
While the word touched on Blowen's feelings in losing a close friend, the main reason it filled his head on this Tuesday morning was the void Byars' death would leave for the retired Thoroughbreds that call Old Friends home.
"These horses are really going to miss him," Blowen said. "He was the best."
Family and friends said Byars, age 70, died the evening of July 7 at his Georgetown, Ky. home.
In 1983 Byars started at Hagyard-Davidson-McGee Associates, now the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, where he would work for 25 years, serving as head of equine medicine. As an internal medicine specialist, he was on the front line in dealing with Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome (MRLS) when it struck Central Kentucky in 2001-02.
"He's one of the pioneers in equine vet medicine," said Hagyard's Dave Fishback, D.V.M. "He's one of the first people to totally focus on the horse as far as internal medicine."
Byars would help launch Hagyard's laboratory and help shape the current facility on Iron Works Pike in Lexington.
"He's one of the most respected equine internal specialists in the world," Fishback said. "I know Coolmore flew him to Ireland numerous times when they had an ailing horse."
Byars worked or had worked on numerous horse industry councils and advisory boards, including the Kentucky Horse Council, where he was on the health and welfare committee; and the Equine Health and Welfare Alliance, a group he helped launch.
"The horse is a deaf mute," Byars said when the Equine Health and Welfare Alliance was launched in 2010. "It can't speak for itself. So our focus will be solely on issues and mechanisms that protect, promote, and preserve adequate humane measures of basic needs for the horse."
In recent years he served as a consultant and his passion turned toward after-care efforts. Blowen recalled Byars visiting Old Friends in Georgetown seven years ago and graciously leaving a $1,000 donation. Blowen appreciated the many young vets who already were volunteering at the Georgetown farm taking care of the retired horses and pensioned stallions, but he thought a more experienced vet like Byars would prove valuable.
Blowen made the five-minute trip to Byars' farm, armed with a six-pack of Samuel Adams beer.
"I had to have a few beers to get my courage up to ask for help with all of these elderly horses," Blowen said. "We had all of these good young vets and I felt like he would be a great addition. We needed someone with the experience to quickly make very good decisions. I finally got my courage up and asked, 'Would you be able to help us out if I promise to not call you at 2 a.m.?'
"He said yes but only under the condition that I do call him at 2 a.m. if a horse needed help."
That evening, and its emptied six-pack, led to Byars working as the head veterinarian at Old Friends.
"For years Doc Byars would tell that story and every detail was the same except I would say we each had three beers while he would say I drank four to his two," Blowen said with a chuckle.
Byars would prove the perfect vet to work with younger vets as he always enjoyed sharing his passion for equine veterinary work. Frank Marcum D.V.M., worked with Byars in recent years on the Equine Health and Welfare Alliance, a group that helped make Kentucky the first state with a horse welfare council.
"Losing a friend is the first blow," Marcum said. "But losing a colleague is another blow. We're losing the best of the best."
Marcum said one of the things he loves about working in Kentucky is the ability to call on so many experienced veterinarians. He always appreciated the wealth of information made available and he said Byars believed in sharing.
"The first time I met him I was working as a racetrack veterinarian in Kentucky and he would come out and share his expertise," Marcum said. "As track practitioners, that was a great resource for us."
In 2007 Byars would become the first private equine veterinarian to receive the Robert W. Kirk Award for professional excellence in the award's then 18-year history at the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) forum. The Kirk Award honors individuals who have provided meritorious contributions to the veterinary profession.
"The 2007 recipient of the Kirk Award is a pioneer, a visionary, and has been an important voice for veterinary medicine, particularly equine medicine and the horse industry, for 33 years," said Thomas Divers, D.V.M., when he presented Byars the award. "His pioneering success in establishing a valued role for equine internist in private practice opened the door for the many equine internists in private practice today."
Byars has held offices in professional veterinary organizations at the national level, including ACVIM, American Association of Equine Practitioners, and the American Veterinary Medical Association Executive Boards Advisory Committee. Byars also has dealt with cutting-edge infectious disease outbreak control, and he was invited to serve on the Kentucky Governor's Task Force on MRLS.
While he reached the heights in his profession, Byars had no interest in ivory towers. He loved to pass on his knowledge of equine health to industry participants as well as the general public. He wrote columns for The Horse magazine and over the last few years became a regular guest on the Lexington radio show Horse Tales with Ercel Ellis.
"He is one of the most respected equine veterinarians in the world, but you would never know it," Ellis said. "The man had absolutely no ego at all. He was as down to earth as someone could be. I just loved the guy."
Byars' wife, Susan, family, and friends will gather for a memorial service at 11 a.m., July 19, at the Cardome Center in Georgetown. (Site plans were updated July 10 to accomodate a larger crowd.)
They'll celebrate Byars' life and perhaps resolve the mystery of Blowen's beer consumption seven years ago. Was it three beers or four?
Either way, Blowen figures he owes his friend a beer. He's not the only one.