A. Gary Lavin, VMD, a distinguished equine veterinarian, Thoroughbred breeder, and exemplar of leadership in his profession, died at his home in Louisville, Kentucky, on Feb. 27. He was 83.
Lavin had battled cancer for several years but successfully maintained quality of life and had been planning his return to his second home in South Carolina.
Lavin is survived by his wife of 60 years, Elizabeth (Betsy), sons Allan (Susan) and Kevin (Amy), and granddaughters (known by the family as “The Cousins”) Catherine, Alexandra, Elizabeth, Eleanor, Lulu, and Hattie.
Response from the racing world was immediate and illustrative of Lavin’s standing as a professional and friend, both of the industry and individuals within it.
“If you set out to meld ‘country scientist’ and ‘southern gentleman,’ the product that exited the forge would be A. Gary Lavin, VMD,” said noted colleague Larry Bramlage, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, a world-renowned veterinary surgeon. “Whether discussing a difficult case or one of his passions, such as The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation (GJCRF), words never came quickly and were never wasted: ‘… Well … if that is the best, we’ll do it!’ He certainly was one of the ‘Best.’ They don’t come along all that often.”
“Doc Lavin was a mentor to me,” said Claiborne Farm’s Dell Hancock, who is chairman of the GJCRF (Lavin served as vice chairman). “Anything I have ever done for the horse was inspired by him.”
“Doc Lavin did as much to further my career as anyone as I was getting started in Louisville,” said Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey. “He and his family were friends as well as supporters, and I will never forget how important that relationship has been.”
Robert Copelan, DVM, like Lavin a former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), said upon learning of Lavin’s passing: “He is one of the oldest, dearest, and closest friends I have ever had or hope to have. I think back to when we met. It was at Randall Park in 1953. He was a student then and was in charge of the canoe they used to have in the infield lake. I was in the first year of my practice and was at the head of the stretch inspecting a field going into the gate. We became friends that day and have been friends ever since.”
“‘Dockie’ was a special person and among the most wonderful human beings I have ever met,” said Keeneland sales executive Geoffrey Russell. “He loved the horse and everything to do with the horse, be it racing, sales, breeding, or its health. He never met a stranger and always had time for everyone, no matter your station. His knowledge was immense, and he was generous in sharing it with anyone who would listen. I was blessed to have spent 13 years working with him on the inspection team at Keeneland. Crisscrossing Kentucky and the East Coast, days were filled with great humor and even better stories. He loved history, especially the Civil War. He would joke that I could drive by Civil War markers faster than Rogers Beasley (also on the team) could.
“After working on the racetrack for over 30 years, he had seen every conformational fault a horse could have and knew what a horse could live with,” Russell continued. “When grading yearlings that had some conformation faults he would sometimes say, ‘Don’t worry about that, he’ll be alright.’ I will always treasure our friendship, and I will raise a glass in his memory. Thanks Dockie. We’ll be alright.”
“Every so often someone comes along who touches so many lives, both professionally and personally,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. “Doc Lavin was one of those. He was always there, with advice, or just friendship.”
“He was a true giant,” said Beasley, who recruited Lavin to be part of Keeneland’s yearling inspection team after his retirement from active practice. “I know that phrase is used a lot, but he really was a giant. He accomplished so many things in the industry, and he was always promoting what would benefit the horse. And he never met a stranger. You would see him on the backstretch, and he would always ask how you were doing, whether you were an owner or a groom. And he never lost his inquisitive mind.”
Illustrative of Beasley’s last point, Lavin led the decision by Grayson-Jockey Club to make a special call for research on extracorporeal shock wave therapy. He recognized that the beneficial new treatment had the potential downside, if misused, to eliminate pain without a horse being cured and, therefore, place them at risk of injury. The resultant research project at Iowa State University guided racing commissions’ parameters for how long before a race the therapy must not be used.
Lavin was born on Nov. 6, 1937, in New Orleans. He grew up in racing, as the son of Allan (Doc) Lavin, racing secretary at Churchill Downs and also at Oaklawn Park, in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The young Lavins were high school sweethearts in Hot Springs and retained a lifetime affection for track and the area.
He graduated from veterinary college at the University of Pennsylvania in 1962. (He always enjoyed pointing that his alma mater identified is veterinary degree as VMD, whereas other colleges conferred a DVM.) He established himself as a racetrack practitioner in Louisville while also working at Warner L. Jones Jr.’s Hermitage Farm and for clients in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and in Indiana. Over the years, other long-term associations included working for such clients as John Ed Anthony and Peter Willmott. In that capacity, Lavin and his Longfield Farm were involved with such horses as Anthony’s 1982-83 Preakness winners, Pine Bluff and champion Prairie Bayou, as well as the noted future stallion Cox’s Ridge, plus Demon’s Begone and Eddington. Also, Angel Fever, raised at Longfield, became the dam of Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus.
“My relationship with Gary Lavin began when Loblolly Stable first acquired Thoroughbreds in 1971, 50 years ago,” said breeder-owner Anthony. “From that time forward Doc has been a key part of my life and experience in the industry. He nurtured and helped develop every prominent horse we campaigned, plus attended to the lesser stock with the finest skill, expertise, and patience known to his profession.
“The Lavins’ Longfield Farm was our home base where mares, foals, and yearlings and layups were under his watchful eye as he and Betsy raised their fine family there. At the sales he was the critical advisor. His counsel regarding trainers and industry personnel was invaluable. I came to know of his kind, honest, and helpful regard for the horses and the people associated with them. He was always optimistic, positive, and encouraging. His honesty and integrity were without question. There are few people one can say they trust absolutely, yet Doc was such a man. Doc lived life fully, but more importantly, calling this fine man friend was a high honor that I am proud to have had in my life.”
Lavin’s long career as a practitioner and surgeon was accompanied by a degree of dedication to the sport and his profession that led him to accept many roles and challenges. In addition to his roles with AAEP and GJCRF, he was president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and a director of Keeneland Association.
In 1994 Dr. Lavin became the first veterinarian elected to The Jockey Club, and he also served as a steward of that organization. He served on the boards of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and the Breeders’ Cup. Over the many years they owned Longfield Farm in Goshen, Kentucky, he and his family bred major winners, raised horses for the commercial market, and managed bloodstock for clients.
Family members also became deeply involved in the sport in individual capacities. Mrs. Lavin served on the Kentucky Racing Commission, Allan runs Lavin Bloodstock, and Kevin owns Lavin (Equine) Insurance. Lavin Bloodstock bred the sentimentally named mare Star of Goshen, whose son Pioneerof the Nile sired Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, etc.
Lavin received many honors, including his alma mater’s Bellwether Medal for Distinguished Leadership and the Thoroughbred Club of America’s Annual Testimonial Dinner guest designation. He was a Distinguished Life Member of the AAEP, recipient of the Distinguished Practitioner Award of the Kentucky Equine Practitioners, and namesake of the Lavin Cup for Equine Welfare, which the AAEP established in 1996.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation (821 Corporate Drive, Lexington, Ky., 40503).
A private family burial will be held in Cave Hill Cemetery, Louisville.