Dr. Alex Harthill

Dr. Alex Harthill

Anne M. Eberhardt

Derby Doc

By Barry Irwin
Alex Harthill never wanted to be the author or the subject of a book about his life, preferring to protect his friends, dead or alive. "Doc" passed July 16, but versions of his tales will be told as long as racing offices crank out overnights.

With his two most famous friends, Charlie Whittingham and Bill Shoemaker, Harthill shared an all-encompassing passion for the sport, to the detriment of family life.

My own relationship with Doc began in the winter of 1997, when I asked him to vet Captain Bodgit, a 3-year-old colt with a bowed tendon. Five years earlier, a vet failed Lil E. Tee for me. Dr. Harthill later passed him for Cal Partee, who won the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) with him.

Although, as a racing journalist, I had been privy to all the tales about the infamous Dr. Harthill, I made up my mind that the next time I ran into a veterinary issue that required a man of experience and talent, Doc Harthill would get the call.

The man was surprised to hear from me, skeptical of doing business with a writer who had taken Whittingham and the Shoe to task in a non-racing magazine a decade earlier, but agreed to examine Captain Bodgit when he learned the colt represented another possible notch in his belt of more than 20 winners of the Run for the Roses.

Dr. Harthill was in his element at historic Hialeah. He became intrigued by Captain Bodgit, who had injured a tendon as a 2-year-old by hanging a leg over an electric hot walker. After watching the colt train for three days, he approved the purchase.

When the colt got beat a head in the Derby, it rankled Doc that "Boy Scout" trainer Gary Capuano ran the horse without Lasix (now Salix), Bute, or anything else. "Dr. Derby" was not allowed to perform his magic, which the vet considered a lost opportunity.

What I may have lost in the Derby was made up for by cementing a relationship with Doc. Although perhaps the oddest couple in the game, we struck up a friendship. We were on opposite sides of the medication issue.

Dr. Harthill single-handedly ushered in the modern phenomenon of "permissive medication." As a vet and later head of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, he was the nation's staunchest advocate of race-day medication.

He listened respectfully to my position as a "hay, oats, and water" proponent. Whenever we got together, we each tried to convince the other of the correctness of our respective positions.

It is nothing if not fitting that as Doc departs the planet, so, too, apparently is the list of allowable race-day medications in the Bluegrass State.

In a game full of geniuses, Dr. Alex Harthill was the genuine article. Always on the cutting edge, he was the first vet to use an endoscope and Lasix. He pioneered surgical techniques. He marketed a wide range of helpful products for horsemen through the Harthill Co.

There was a dark side to Dr. Harthill, one well chronicled by Louisville Courier-Journal writers Mike Barry, who made a light industry of writing about the vet, and Billy Reed, who wrote a revealing article late in the vet's life.

Dr. Alex Harthill was reviled by many racing insiders, because sometimes, as was the case with Dancer's Image, he brought scandal to the game. But I can tell you that when we traveled, veterinarians throughout the land held him in awe, and not because of his ability to "light one up."

The man barely spoke above a whisper, but every word from his mouth was savored by knowledgeable horsemen.

What I will remember most about Doc was the twinkle in those blue eyes. It would have been nicer if they didn't seem to dance most when he recounted an old larceny. But I was able to separate the admirable part from the dark side. I hope that when he is remembered, others might be able to do the same.