01/09/2009 2:14PM

Joe Hirsch, 1928-2009


Joe Joe Hirsch died this morning in New York at the age of 80. He was the heart and soul of Daily Racing Form for decades, a giant in the industry and a dear friend to many.

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....