06/05/2009 11:00PM

Belmont memorial service for Hirsch


On a rainy Friday morning in the North Shore Terrace of the Belmont Park clubhouse, about a hundred close friends of Joe Hirsch gathered to pay tribute to the memory of Daily Racing Form's legendary executive columnist, who died in January in New York City at the age of 80.

"Five months might seem like a long time to wait for a tribute such as this," said program host Steven Crist, publisher of Daily Racing Form. "But coming together here at Belmont, on the eve of the Belmont Stakes, seemed like the fitting time and place to give as many as possible the chance to share memories of Joe."

Hirsch, who battled Parkinson's disease over the last years of his life, began his career with The Morning Telegraph and moved to the pages of Daily Racing Form in 1955. His in-depth coverage of the run-up to the Kentucky Derby each year, beginning in 1957, was unmatched, and his "At the Post" column was a daily staple of racetrackers and horseplayers over several generations. Hirsch retired in 2003.

Among the racing figures summoning personal tales of Hirsch as an outstanding journalist, genial host and generous gatekeeper of invaluable contacts were Charles Hayward, president of the New York Racing Association, Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, Hall of Fame trainers Nick Zito and Wayne Lukas, and eight-time Eclipse Award winning writer Bill Nack.

"The first time I met Joe was when I covered my first Kentucky Derby," Nack said. "Joe said, 'Let me show you around.' He introduced me to every trainer of every horse in the Derby, and by the end of the morning he was referring to me as 'my good friend Bill.' "

Bailey, who credits Hirsch with career guidance when the rider first came to New York, recalled one of his first dining experiences as a guest of Hirsch, which included Joe's traditional exortation, "You will have dessert."

"I protested, because I was riding the next day and I knew if I had dessert I would be spending time in the hot box," Bailey said. "Joe wouldn't hear of it. He insisted it 'wouldn't hurt a baby.' "

The sentiments of the speakers were complemented by a video slide show featuring Hirsch down through the years, in the company of such racing notables as Bill Shoemaker, John Longden, Woody Stephens, Julie Krone, Ted Bassett, Angel Penna, and his close friend Joe Namath. Enlarged posters of highlights from Hirsch's prolific writing career lined the room, while cocktail napkins embossed with "Dessert wouldn't hurt a baby . . . " doubled as keepsakes.

Zito, a two-time winner of the Belmont Stakes, described Hirsch as someone who deeply understood racing and the pressures felt by its participants, who preferred to "look for the good in people" when writing about the sport he loved so dearly. Zito also provided one of many examples of Hirsch's dry, incisive wit.

"We were at dinner, and I was not really enjoying my meal," Zito said. "But instead of sending it back - to cook it more, or different - I ate it, but without much enthusiasm. Joe just looked at me and said, 'The bread's good.' "