By Joe Hickey
Fanciful locker room tales aside, grown men are prone to sports fantasies worthy of young boys: catching a Tom Brady spiral to win the title game; walking into the clubhouse at Pinehurst or Torrey Pines with a two-stroke lead; crushing Randy Johnson's high heat for a walk-off home run; or hoisting the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) trophy aloft for all the world to covet. The fantasy here was to have accompanied the late esteemed veterinarians Dr. Arthur H. Davidson and Dr. DeWitt Owen Jr. as they barnstormed farms, grading yearlings nominated to Keeneland Association sales. Specifically the July yearling auction, which until its demise after the 2002 renewal showcased the greatest concentration of select Thoroughbred yearlings anywhere in the world. That would have been great fun--more fun than being the sideline Gatorade guy at the Super Bowl. To my mind such a brief "internship" alongside two of the planet's most renowned judges of horseflesh would have been an unparalleled learning experience for anyone seeking to hone his skill at judging equine conformation. My, how I admired the good doctors. Not only were they masters of their profession--each a skilled surgeon who knew bone, tissue, tendon, and ligament from the inside out--but they also were warm, upstanding, gentle men of unquestioned integrity. Revered by their peers, they had wide respect among horsemen, even among buyers, sellers, or consignors whose flawed colts had flunked the finals. With keen eyesight, comfortable shoes, and thick binders crammed with grading sheets and family notes, they worked in tandem with the gifted artistry of Ferrante and Teicher. Watching these men work was for me sheer delight. Studying each subject carefully, Davidson whistled softly to himself, like the purring of a contented kitten. Long in tooth and retired partner in the noted Hagyard-Davidson-McGee veterinary practice in Lexington, he savored his work as great sport, perhaps second only to taking to the hunting field with shotgun and prized bird dog to flush game. No matter how hot the sun, how many yearlings yet to go, he stayed the course, tolerant of a balky yearling while sharing the showman's chagrin. "Walk him again, please, Tommy." Owen, whose equine conformation video equates to human medicine's abridged Gray's Anatomy, never lost sight of the fact that a breeder's year might well ride on his grading sheets. Capless under a noonday sun--his bald pate glistening like Notre Dame's trademark gold dome--he strived to compliment, or, as needed, ease the pain of rejection, tactfully suggesting that patience is a late foal's best medicine and mother's milk for a timid filly. Teach, not preach. "How are the crabs running?" "De" would ask, hand outstretched as he sprung from their chartered Beechcraft. "How's your boy's Little League team shaping up?" (DeWitt attended Michigan State on a baseball scholarship.) If we were lucky, our farm would be the last of the day for the inspectors. The good doctors could then layover at the farm, dine on Chesapeake Bay bounty, and I could "go to school." As the years wore on, Davidson's health began to falter. He suffered a stroke, and at times had trouble expressing himself. He retained a marksman's eye, however, and the twinkle and warm smile, as well. De, 18 years Art's junior, looked after his colleague like a monsignor attends his bishop. It was heartening to observe the solicitous care the younger man gave his friend, no doubt in gratitude for the time, years earlier, when Art had taken him under his wing when De feared a hand problem might jeopardize his career as a surgeon. Sadly, the good doctors are gone, and so, too, Keeneland's July sale. Dr. Davidson, 84, and Dr. Owen, 66, died within four months of each other in 1996. Their studious professionalism and inspired dedication during combined careers spanning a century were priceless veterinary gifts to our industry. We treasure class in the Thoroughbred; it is no less cherished in those who work with these noble animals.