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Horse Racing: Horses just what doctor ordered

Sunday, February 04, 2001

It's a racetrack adage that an old horseman or woman won't die as long as he or she has a yearling in the barn. Lifelong harness horseman and recently retired podiatrist Doc Wittlin agrees, but he'd substitute the more generic "horse" for the word "yearling" in the aphorism.

"They keep you alive," he said.

Wittlin, 81, knows what he's talking. That's why an admirer suggested he'd be an inspiring human interest story. Herman "Doc" Wittlin has been at The Meadows working with his horses every day since the facility opened in the 1960s. He quit driving when he was about 62, and nowadays he has Dane Snyder do the actual training, but he's still the caretaker of his racing stock. And, in his case, that means loading and vanning his Meadows horses back to his 15-acre farm in South Franklin Township for a little rest and relaxation every other day. Loading a horse into a little van is not easy if he doesn't want to go; Wittlin manages the procedure by himself.

"You've got to be alert all the time," Wittlin said. "Even though you might handle them every day, they're always ready to nip or bite or kick you. They test you."

One tested him pretty good recently. Active Goal, the only Wittlin horse racing at Ladbroke at The Meadows (there's a 2-year-old in Florida, a broodmare and a yearling in Ohio), stepped on his master. "He knew he did it, too," Wittlin said. Fortunately, nothing was broken.

Like many horsemen, Wittlin got involved in racing because his kids wanted a horse to ride and for 4-H projects. After buying a saddle-broken mare, he discovered she was, in fact, a standardbred trotter. Wittlin decided to learn to train and drive her at the same time his kids were riding. Soon, he was racing at the county fairs, and when The Meadows got going he was delighted to have a track so close to home. His stable got bigger as all three children became proficient with horses; one went on to become a veterinarian.

At its peak, the Wittlin stable had 10 race horses. The doctor took care of, trained and drove them around his podiatry practice. His workday started around 4:30 a.m. and ended around midnight.

Nowadays, he has been able to sleep in a little later. Active Goal usually is the last horse in the Snyder barn to go out to the track.

Mellon money to horses

Pittsburgh native Paul Mellon, known for giving away millions of dollars for the arts, loved his thoroughbreds just as much as his collections of paintings and sculpture. At his Virginia farm, he combined both, decorating his pristine stable yard with exquisite sculpture. He also commissioned and placed statues of his Kentucky Derby-Travers Stakes winner Sea Hero for the saddling paddocks at Belmont Park and Saratoga.

Now his estate has announced a $5 million endowment to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the largest and best-known of several groups who try to rescue used-up racehorses from a trip to the slaughterhouse. It currently is supporting more than 350 horses.

TRF, founded in 1982, tries to help humanity in the process. Four of its seven large farms are at three prisons and a youth correctional center. The inmates in the correctional facilities at Wallkill, N.Y., Lexington, Ky., and Ocala, Fla., as well as at-risk juveniles at the Charles Hickey School in Baltimore, learn vocational and life skills through their care of retired thoroughbreds.

TRF also has satellite retirement farms and in recent years has started an adoption program. In the latter, the racehorses are rehabilitated from any racing injuries and retrained as saddle horses and/or pets before being placed with new owners.

Terms of the endowment allow TRF to spend up to $250,000 in any year.

To make donations, or to inquire about adopting a thoroughbred, write the TRF at PMB 351, Shrewsbury Plaza, Shrewsbury, N.J. 07703-4332. Its Web site address is www.trfinc.org, and its phone number is 732 957-0182.

Racing manual returns

After an absence of several years, Daily Racing Form has resurrected The American Racing Manual, the ultimate racing resource. The yearly tome contains charts and statistics dating back decades, as well as some biographies and a year in review. The latest edition sells for $60, but if you order now, DRF offers a discount on the next one.

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