02/25/2002 1:00AM

DQ in '52 Big Cap cost plenty

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ARCADIA, Calif. - What does $8,000 buy today? Not much, if your sights are high, or your taste leans toward the pricey. Most of us would cash the check and go on a spree - Cancun, Barbados, Branson - or maybe pay off part of that credit card bill. But for the money, it's hard to buy anything that lasts.

And it will never change your life.

Fifty years ago, the story was different. Eight grand was almost twice the average yearly income for an American household. Anyone pulling down $8,000 a year was doing better than all right. They were living high.

Buddy and Sandy Hirsch were doing better than all right. As the son of the legendary King Ranch trainer Max Hirsch, Buddy handled the West Coast division of the powerful stable while his father ruled in the East. Buddy and Sandy had a comfortable home near Santa Anita, and followed the circuit to Hollywood Park, Del Mar, and San Francisco. Charlie and Peggy Whittingham were close friends. Fred Astaire was a pal.

Buddy Hirsch was shy. Sandy was not, and because of her, their parties were notoriously fun. The guest lists sparkled with celebrities, racetrack and otherwise. Sandy threw Buddy a huge birthday bash every year, on Jan. 11, even in 1952, when she was pregnant with their second child and due any day.

"The night before the party I felt a little squeamish," Sandy said. She was talking from her home in Miami. "I told Buddy it would be okay, not to wait up for me. He had to get up so early, you know, for the horses. I told him I'd get a ride to the hospital and be back before he knew it."

Let the record show that Michael Hirsch was born on Jan. 10, 1952. And the birthday party went on as scheduled, although Sandy took a pass.

The star of the 1952 Hirsch stable was Intent, a grandson of Man o' War who was just reaching his peak as a 4-year-old for his owner and breeder, Harry Isaacs. As a young horse, Intent had battled bucked shins, cough, and colic, but now things were going his way, especially since the Santa Anita Maturity for 4-year-olds was the richest race in the nation. After a narrow loss in the San Fernando Stakes, Intent won the 1952 Maturity by a neck and earned $112,750 from a pot of $183,750. His next major goal was the Santa Anita Handicap and its purse of $100,000.

This Saturday, March 2, the Santa Anita Handicap will have a purse of $1 million for the 17th straight year. In 1952, the purse for the Santa Anita Handicap was one of only 11 races in North America worth more than $100,000. To give the race its due, add a mental zero to the purse, and sympathize with Sandy Hirsch as she looks back through the years.

"I sure do remember it," she said. "It was just like a million-dollar race today. The money meant a lot, and every good horse seemed to come to California to take a shot."

Among those descending upon Santa Anita 50 years ago were 1951 Horse of the Year Counterpoint, 1950 Horse of the Year Hill Prince, 1951 champion mare Bed o' Roses, and 1950 champion 3-year-old filly Next Move, not to mention the defending Santa Anita Handicap champ, Moonrush. All of them except Counterpoint made it to the big dance, run that year on Saturday, March 1.

Intent and Jack Westrope were far back early in the field of 15, along with Miche, the gray from Argentina who had won the 1950 Inglewood Handicap, but little else. By the time they reached the head of the stretch, it had become a two-horse race, as Evan Shipman reported in the 1953 American Racing Manual.

"Intent came up to Miche, whose move he had matched, and then moved sharply over on him, forcing the South American practically into the rail," Shipman wrote. ". . . Westrope did not appear to be trying to straighten his mount. Intent bumped Miche badly once at the top of the stretch, but the gray came again, and it looked as if Intent came over on him again."

Sandy Hirsch, back in the pink after the birth of Michael, was in the crowd that day. As the inquiry lights flash, she made her way down from their clubhouse box.

"I only went down to the winner's circle for the big races," she said. "I heard Buddy ask the jock, 'How bad was it?' Westrope said, 'You don't think I was gonna let that s.o.b. through for a hundred grand, do you?' That's when Buddy turned to me and told me I could go back upstairs."

The difference between first and second place was a cool $81,000, or about $8,000 down the tubes, as far as Buddy and Sandy's percentage was concerned.

"All the jock had to do was ride his horse and he would have won anyhow," Sandy added. "It was the first time they ever took down the winner of a hundred-thousand-dollar race. But, you know, Buddy took it very well. He was very even tempered. If it had happened to his father, Max would have burned down the grandstand."

Buddy Hirsch knew he was in for the long haul, and there were many good times to come. One week later, Intent won the San Juan Capistrano Handicap.

Two years later, in 1954, Hirsch finally got his Santa Anita Handicap with Rejected. At the time of his death at the age of 88, in October of 1997, Hirsch was not only a Hall of Famer like his father, but also one of the most respected trainers of the era.

Still, that eight grand would have come in handy.