By Sue Finley
Dr. Gary Lavin, one of the Thoroughbred industry's most respected and accomplished veterinarians, passed away Saturday morning at his home in Louisville, Kentucky after a long battle with cancer, according to his family. He was 83 years old.
Lavin is a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, Steward of The Jockey Club, trustee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and the Breeders' Cup, director at Keeneland, and vice-chairman of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation.
Lavin was a 1962 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania veterinary college and was honored with the school's Bellweather Medal for Distinguished Leadership. He was recognized as an Honor Guest by the Thoroughbred Club of America in 2014.
The son of racing secretary Allan Lavin who started his career as an assistant trainer at Greentree in California before World War II, Lavin grew up in the sport. He worked for many years on the racetrack as an equine practitioner and surgeon, and was a member of the Keeneland inspection team for 16 years, retiring in 2010. His grandfather was a doctor, and though his family has Kentucky roots, he was born in New Orleans and raised in Arkansas.
Lavin was also an owner and breeder, and developed Longfield Farm in Goshen, Kentucky, a commercial breeding and boarding operation, which bred or raised notable horses such as Pine Bluff, Prairie Bayou, Eddington, Quality Road, Om, and Secret Circle.
“He was great, great, great man,” said Rogers Beasley, former Vice President of Racing at Keeneland and currently the Chief Strategy Officer at the Breeders' Cup. “He encompassed a whole range of our industry from racing to breeding, to being on many many boards that provided for the health and welfare of our horsemen. He was concerned for all involved in the industry, both horses, and on the backside.”
Lavin was the subject of the TDN and Keeneland's Life's Work Project in April, 2020, which may be read and viewed here.
One of the pioneers in early equine surgery, Lavin recalled Tim Tam's successful operation for a broken sesamoid in the wake of the 1958 Belmont Stakes as a turning point in equine surgery. “When I got to Churchill, surgery was in its very beginnings,” he told the TDN's Chris McGrath in 2019. “That was the summer Tim Tam broke down in the Belmont and went to the University of Pennsylvania for his surgery. I've always marked that as the time, when it made the front page of the Daily Racing Form for weeks after, that people knew it was possible.”
He and his colleague Dr. Robert Copelan were credited with saving Flip Sal, who broke down in the 1974 Kentucky Derby. “He had a good pulse in his pastern and we decided, well, we'll just see what happens,” he told McGrath. “We snugged him up in a tight bandage and, day by day by day, finally we put a cast on him. And he spent the entire summer there. And, of course, Dr. Copelan and I got all the credit for doing a wonderful job. All we did feed him, clean [his] stall and change the cast. That horse saved himself, is what happened.”
Shug McGaughey trained his first-ever stakes winner, Party School, for Lavin and his partner Henry Meyer's Mjaka Stable and said that Lavin was a transformational influence on his life.
“I don't think that anybody was a bigger influence on my career than Dr. Lavin was at an early age,” said McGaughey. “I don't think I'd be where I am today if it weren't for him. I knew he had been struggling a little bit, but I didn't expect this at this time. This one is hard. He was a wonderful man, he loved the game, he put a lot into the game through Grayson and being a surgeon in the old days, when they basically operated on horses with knives and forks. I remember him telling me when he retired that it wasn't because he was getting too old for it; he said, `I got tired of giving people bad news.' I repeated that story just the other day to a girl who works for me down in Florida. He was a great influence on me, we were great friends, not only on the racetrack, but off. He was a proud guy; proud of his accomplishments, though he would never say it. He was proud of his family, proud of his friends, and we had a lot of fun together and a lot of laughs. When they won a race, they celebrated and had a good time.”
Keeneland's Geoffrey Russell worked with Lavin for years on the inspection team and called him, “the most wonderful human being I think I've ever met. He never met a stranger. He had time for everybody. Sometimes, on inspections, it was difficult to get him off of the farms for all the chatting and catching up he did. That's what made him such a wonderful person. We had great trips across Kentucky, and up the East Coast, and the stories he would tell made those trips so much more enjoyable.”
Russell said that in 1998, Lavin was part of the group who told him that he had just seen the sales topper. “I said, `come on guys, it's the middle of March. It's the second day of inspections.'” That horse was Fusaichi Pegasus, who topped the Keeneland July Sale for $4 million and went on to win the Kentucky Derby. “`Dockie' always said about that horse, he had the skin of a seal.”
“He had all his priorities right. He loved what he did and he loved his family. He put everything in the right order.” –Dell Hancock
His experience, his eye and his willingness to share his knowledge made working with him on the inspection team “a blessing,” said Russell. “For anybody who worked with him, it was a blessing. Having worked 33, 34 years on the racetrack, he had seen every conformational flaw on a horse and would say, `I've seen that. That won't bother him.' He was a wonderful teacher, and so happy to share his information. He was in it for everybody.”
Dell Hancock, who worked closely with Dr. Lavin at Grayson, said she had known him since her early 20s, and said, “He was one of the kindest, most wonderful people I've ever met. He was obviously a great veterinarian, but his knowledge of horses went so much further than just this or that. He loved horses. He didn't just work on them, he loved them. That separated him from so many people.”
She called his work at Grayson “invaluable.”
“He always put the horse first,” she said. “His work for the horse at Grayson was invaluable and it's one of things that made Grayson what it is. He and Larry Bramlage are the ones who came up with an early look at all these projects and it's the backbone of Grayson, and each would say it wouldn't have happened without the other. I couldn't say enough good things about Doc Lavin. He's one of the few people who didn't have an enemy. Just a super, super person.
“He had all his priorities right,” said Hancock. “He loved what he did and he loved his family. He put everything in the right order.”
Lavin is survived by his wife, Elizabeth (Betsy), a former member of the Kentucky Racing Commission; his son Kevin and his wife, Amy; son Allan and his wife Susan; and grandchildren Catherine, Alexandra, Elizabeth, Eleanor, Lulu, and Hattie.
He will be buried Tuesday in Louisville's Cave Hill Cemetery in a service for family only. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, 821 Corporate Drive, Lexington, Ky., 40503.
The entire Life's Work interview with Dr. Lavin, recorded July 18, 2019, may be viewed here at the University of Kentucky's Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.