Rod Hartwick’s love of horses began at a young age when his father “got the bug” for racing, and the family began buying horses and traveling around to various racetracks in Michigan and Ohio. Although his home was in Berkley, Mich., Hartwick was rarely there.
“We were gone all the time, like gypsies,” he said.
On June 29, 1945, just after turning 13, Hartwick, a jockey, won his first race. By the end of his first year he had won 155 races and was the leading apprentice rider in America. But Hartwick was technically too young to ride — the legal age was 16.
“I said I was 16 every year,” Hartwick laughs.
Although Hartwick rode many of his family’s horses, he rode for other horse trainers, as well, including Lucien Laurin, best known for being the horse trainer to Secretariat, who Hartwick later treated.
In 1959, Hartwick graduated from veterinary school and made his way back to the racetracks.
“I was trying to get clients and was running around like an idiot,” recalls Hartwick, “but after a year or so, you build up a clientele and you become their veterinarian. There were certain stables where I did all their work forever.”
In 1992, Hartwick retired from his veterinary practice.
“I decided I wasn’t going to die on the racetrack,” he says.
Hartwick’s living a lifetime on the racetrack normal.
“It was a normal process of being raised on the racetrack,” he says. “Being a vet was a logical thing, and how neat to be able to work on the racetrack and make a darn good living — it was fun! Being involved in racing — I loved it.”
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IN HIS OWN WORDS
On Secretariat: “I flew into Belmont Park to operate on a horse, and Lucien (Laurin) was there, and he said, ‘I got to show you something,’ and he brings out this big chestnut horse that was only 2 years old. He said, ‘This horse is going to be the best horse in America.’ This was before Secretariat had even run a race.
I got to treat him a few times while I was up there. Later, I treated Secretariat when Lucien brought him to Chicago to run in one of the big stakes. He had already won the Triple Crown. He just had a personality of his own and was a magnificent beast.”
On the CO2 laser: Hartwick helped develop the CO2 laser, a light that acts like a knife and is used in procedures such as de-clawing cats. “I would use the laser to make an incision, and it would save time and it was a more humane way. There was no swelling and no pain. Cats would start jumping around right away and didn’t even realize what had happened to them.”
On staying busy at 79: “I’m getting my master’s in education right now from Argosy. I want to teach biology or chemistry at a high school. It should take me about two years to finish.”