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Joe Hirsch, 1928-2009
His extended family is at a loss for words at the moment on this sad day, but someone suggested I post what I wrote about Joe six years ago in a book published a year before his retirement from DRF:
"...I went by [trainer John] Campo’s barn at Belmont to see what the summer plans were for [Pleasant Colony]. I introduced myself as the new guy and Campo wasn’t shy about welcoming me to the job.
“Let me tell you something, and learn to listen carefully when the Fat Man tells you something,” he began. “You don’t know nothing. Nothing. Whatever you think you know, you don’t know it. You want to learn about this game, you stay close to the Fat Man and maybe you’ll learn something.
“And another thing,” he said. “I don’t know you from something I’d scrape off my shoe but I seen you around with the other reporters. I seen you wearing a trench coat. Only one guy in the press box gets to wear a trench coat and that’s Mr. Joe Hirsch who’s the only guy up there who’s got a clue. Don’t let me see you back here in a trench coat again and maybe you’ll be okay.”
Campo’s opinion of Hirsch was universal around the racetrack. Hirsch was the hardest-working turf writer in the country, combing the stables every morning for news. He considered himself not only a pipeline for official news through the Form, but also an ambassador for the sport, presenting it in its most favorable light while always comporting himself as a gentleman and diplomat. He had no interest in turning over rocks to look for trouble, nor did he feel it was part of his job. He believed certain things were best left unsaid and problems should be solved quietly behind closed doors.
His work ethic was unbelievable. Every spring he single-handedly covered the run-up to the Triple Crown with an exhaustive daily report, Derby Doings, which might list as many as 30 horses being considered for the race. Joe hunted down every one of them each day. Racetrack officials and reporters from around the country called Joe to find out who was pointing for the Derby, not the other way around. Form readers looked forward to the annual debut of Derby Doings as a more reliable confirmation of springtime than the first robin.
Part of Joe’s ambassadorial role was to nurture new additions to the press box, to help them track down people and stories so that racing would get as much space as possible in the sports pages of daily general newspapers. Joe was so widely recognized as a steady mentor for young people that Sonny Werblin, who owned a string of racehorses as well as the New York Jets, turned to Hirsch in 1965 to provide guidance and stability to a newcomer to New York: Joe Namath, whom Werblin moved into Hirsch’s Manhattan apartment.
When I officially got the Times job, I became Joe’s new project. The amount of coverage The New York Times gave racing was particularly important to the sport, and it was both Joe’s self-appointed duty and his natural kindness to younger writers that made him my guardian. He would occasionally share breaking news with me because he felt it was more important for the Times to report something than for him to have an exclusive in the Form. He would sometimes ask me to join him on morning rounds at the track or for dinner in Manhattan after the races, and he would not hear of splitting a check, much less surrendering one entirely.
One time after Joe had again picked up the tab for an extravagant meal, I asked him if there wasn’t something I could do for him in return.
“Always wear a necktie when you go to the paddock,” was his lone request....
I grew up in Detroit and my best friends were an Irish family that lived several blocks away. I was at their house more than my own and from time to time, observed more than I should have. My friend's father was a hard working, hard playing, hard drinking, hard handicapping, and an ultra hard disciplinarian of his 4 Irish sons. If there were any "troubles" with his boys while the father was at work or play, everything (all life) halted when he returned home from Detroit Race Course (his last stop). It didn't take long to figure out that a bad day at the track someone increased the punishment, but one thing is also certain; if the next day's Racing Form (especially Joe Hirsch's column) was placed anywhere near his reading chair in the front room to the front door, the beatings were never very severe and often postponed as the father was always more interested in what "Joe has to say about this..." or what "Joe has said about that..." After everything I witnessed in that house during my teenage years, I can assure you that Joe Hirsch is a Saint in Heaven by now. I am also grateful that Joe Hirsch was such a great influence in Steve's life as this now explains why I liked Steve's writing and viewpoints almost immediately. Everything makes more sense but it's still really sad to lose someone who touched so many so deeply. If there's a heaven, he's in by many lengths.
Kathy Johnson's comment tells everybody everywhere everything they'll ever need to know about what's great about racing.
Was extremely busy over the weekend so I did not find out about this until early Monday morning, as there was little I saw in the mainstream press about it. It's no secret Mr. Hirsch was a giant in the industry, and it's only fitting we have a major prep race for the BC Turf at Belmont among other things named in his honor. What's really sad is that this was not a bigger story than it was, as he truly was a giant of the Sport of Kings.
Steve and Steve, nice posts. I had several dinners (only he could pick up the check!)and spent several afternoons with him because our mutual friend was another late, great write, Leon Rasmussen, and I yes, he was a great guy and a true gentleman.
Steve, He didn't even ask you to cut your hair? WOW!
Joe's columns the big race on Saturdays late in his stellar career were a must read because more often than not, be it a favorite or a longshot, he was writing about the winner. You can look it up.
DRF offered me a special opportunity to drive Joe around during the 2001 Saratoga meet. I wrote about it on my Fair Grounds blog: http://www.fairgroundsracecourse.com/blog/remembering-joe-hirsch I'll always be grateful to the amazing people at DRF for giving me that chance. My thoughts are with all of you.
When I first started covering racing for The Buffalo News it didn't take me long to figure out that Joe Hirsch was a guy to stay close to. No matter how busy a trainer was, he always stopped what he was doing when Joe stopped by the barn. I was very impressed by the fact that while the rest of us reporters were laden with tape recorders and notebooks, Joe came equipped just with a little drug-store spiral book he could hold in the palm of his hand or, more often, in the pocket of his trench coat. He listened well, asked good questions and took very little notes. But I don't think anybody complained that he was misquoted. ... Also I remember that on the morning after a big race, Joe's first question to the winning trainer was usually "Where did you have dinner last night?" I thought it was a strange question but it usually led to some interesting conversation and a good quote. ... I also remember casually mentioning to Joe in the Saratoga press box that I was having trouble finding a certain trainer. ... A couple days later Joe called me in Buffalo with the guy's phone number. ... With Joe's retirement, I had to find other highly respected people to follow around the barn areas. They know who they are but, hopefully, I'll not have to recall memories about them for a long, long, long time. ... They're good, but there will never be another Joe Hirsch.
I have a few lovely memories of Joe, too. The night before my dad's induction into the Hall of Fame, my parents gave a party at the Wishing Well for their close friends. Joe had taken a cab there as he wasn't driving any longer and I told him that my husband Don and I would be happy to drive him home. I remember telling him, mid-party, to let me know when he was ready to leave. He said "Kathy, I never leave a party till it's over, especially this one!" When it was over, Joe and Don and I piled into our car, with me taking the backseat over Joe's protestations that he'd be fine back there. When Don turned on the car, "California Girls" came blasting out of the speakers. I was mortified. If it had to happen, why couldn't it have been Sinatra, or maybe Mozart? Don quickly turned the volume down and we apologized. Joe took a second, then said, "I've always loved the Beach Boys; I think Pet Sounds is brilliant and that Brian Wilson is a musical genius." Don put our Pet Sounds CD into the player, and we listened to it all the way back to Joe's place. The next day, when I told P.G. about what had happened, he shrugged and smiled, "I'm not surprised; Joe knows a lot about a lot of things, he's a cool guy." Many years later, on the day in August that my dad died, just four months after my mother, Joe called me. I didn't take many calls that day, but I took Joe's. He said, "I'm so sorry, your parents were wonderful people and I don't have the words to tell you how sorry I am for you and Karen." On Friday, I knew exactly how he felt.
Joe Hirsch will be remembered as a superior journalist, a wordsmith, and a classy man of integrity. But what he should be most remembered for by those of us who love this game is that he was a one-man positive publicity machine for the racing industry. All you had to do was read one stakes recap, article or column by Mr. Hirsch to give you the feeling that racing was still as relevant in the world of sports as it was in its heyday. Whether intentional or unintentional, he never ceased to promote the "good" in racing and always seemed to find a positive spin and highlight the "human spirit" of those that work with these great animals. I had been a former member of the media as well as a racing publicist at Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows so I always appreciated his work. In the winter of 1999 I took over as agent for jockey Mike Smith who had been a long time leading rider and go-to-man in many big races on the East Coast but had been slowed by injuries and slumping business. I was new to the East Coast racing scene having spent all my time in racing on the West Coast. It was important for me to meet New York and Florida horsemen and try to rebuild their confidence in Mike and get him in position to once again be considered for mounts on the "big" horses in the important races. We were fortunate enough to be leading the standings early in the 2000 Gulfstream Park meet and had just won the Broward Handicap on the exciting South African import Horse Chestnut when I got a phone call from Mr. Hirsch. He wanted to meet me and interview Mike. It would have been easy for him to just call the jockeys room or have the publicity department get some quotes from Mike but as I was told he liked to do his interviews in-person. What resulted was a "Mike Smith Comeback" story that I always felt fast-forwarded our efforts much more than we could have on our own. What he accomplished in a few paragraphs would've taken us months. If Joe Hirsch wrote it, it was gospel on the racetrack. Thank you Mr. Hirsch for everything you ever did for the Sport of Kings and its athletes,human and equine, it will always be appreciated.