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Veterinarian unsung hero in Secretariat story

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

It would be difficult to imagine anybody-including those steadfastly opposed to pari-mutuel betting-coming to the Keeneland race course and not experiencing a surge in emotions. Gentle excitement permeates, and the mood is forever festive.

Blue grass, thoroughbreds, and autumn leaves in the fall in a pastoral setting - life is good and in order. Kentuckians would have you believe that their blue grass is the finest of grasses, owing to its limestone influence, the same limestone that makes Kentucky's bourbon unparalleled.

The grounds are kempt and the grass clipped neatly. The landscaping reflects a becoming tidiness in an atmosphere that has a "come hither" appeal to all classes. It can be a rich man-poor man environment, with a lot of variety in between. Choose the clubhouse, and you are required to wear a tie -- no jeans allowed -- a nice tradition with no quick release in sight. Raise a toast to Keeneland's old-fashioned policy. If you prefer the grandstand and general admission, you likely will mix with the haves as well as the have-nots.

Find a rail position at the paddock where the sleek thoroughbreds parade by and your anticipation heightens as Bucky Sallee, of nearby Georgetown, in his green-and-gold jacket and black top hat, steps on the racetrack to call the horses to post. "When the horses leave the paddock, Sallee greets them, with a rift of 'Boots and Saddles,'" Jim Williams, former track public relations director once wrote, "and as post time approaches, he plays a few bars of 'Assembly.'" Those sounds warm the horse aficionados the way college alumni are warmed by the fight song of their alma mater.

Whenever you go to Keeneland, you'll find burgoo, the traditional spicy stew, along with Kentucky sweet cornbread. Brad Owens, a Telly Savalas lookalike, touts burgoo as "popular with everybody." Then he adds, "You are in Kentucky. You must try our burgoo and our bourbon."

An introduction to Fran Taylor, executive director of the Keeneland Foundation, brought about possession of her handsome book, Keeneland Entertains, a treatise on "traditional bluegrass hospitality and favorite recipes." With Fran's book I came away a winner even when I failed to connect at the betting window.

One thing more on the "must try" list at any horse track is a meal at the track kitchen. Real people hang out there. Groomsmen, hot walkers, stable hands, laborers, and veterinarians like Dr. Bob Copelan, who has doctored some of the greatest horses in thoroughbred history, including Triple Crown winner Secretariat.

Secretariat, a surprise loser in the Wood Memorial, developed an abscess under his upper lip. It was Copelan who discovered the abscess. His instructions were to bathe the lip externally the first seven minutes of every hour. By Wednesday of Derby week, he went to check on Secretariat's condition. Happily the soreness had begun to subside. Copelan rolled back the lip and a once troublesome mass fell out. On Saturday, the great horse began his Triple Crown journey by winning the Kentucky Derby. A simple solution inspired by instincts of an intellectual man with the right stuff.

Copelan has memorized dozens of Rudyard Kipling's poems. "He can recite 'Gunga Din' flawlessly while conducting serious surgery on a horse," says Cot Campbell of Dogwood Stable, Aiken, S.C.

Fit as a fiddle, Copelan plans to pursue veterinary practice "until I drop." One of the heroes of the Secretariat story was this ageless vet whose reputation as the consummate gentleman fits in nicely with the alluring atmosphere of picturesque Keeneland.

Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at loransmithathens@bellsouth.net.