10/31/2003 12:00AM

Hey, Joe - say it ain't so

Joe Hirsch

ARCADIA, Calif. - The item in today's paper is brief and to the point. Joe Hirsch, journalist by trade, will write his final column for Daily Racing Form later this month. November was already turning cold and damp. Now this.

The news will be greeted far and wide with a sigh of the inevitable. Some things simply are not made to last. Laffit Pincay was supposed to ride forever. Bill Shoemaker should never say goodbye. Joe Hirsch, racing's clarion voice, could never call it a day.

But he will.

"I'm packing it in," Hirsch said this week from his home in Manhattan. "I have to do it. I can't do any more work."

He owes the game nothing. Joe Hirsch is 74. He has been working since 1948, the year he emerged from New York University with a degree in journalism. He put it to use briefly for the New York Times and then for the Morning Telegraph, sister publication of Daily Racing Form. After four years in the service, Hirsch picked up where he left off. The Army's loss was racing's gain.

"Anyone can make history," wrote Oscar Wilde. "Only a great man can write it." He wasn't necessarily referring to Joe Hirsch - the two men never actually met - but the sentiment certainly applies.

More than a journalist, Hirsch has borne witness to an age and left its tales etched in stone. His tireless chronicling has captured both the shifting winds of a restless industry and the bedrock values that give Thoroughbred racing its permanent place in the heart.

Hirsch filed his first major pieces for this publication in 1954, nearly half a century ago. If that seems like only yesterday, Hirsch must suffer a large part of the blame. The characters who populated his stories in the 1950's seem every bit alive today as they were back then, when horse racing fancied itself a rich man's pastime populated by cowboys, hardboots, and card sharps.

"Racing just has so many great people," Hirsch told the equine magazine "Spur" in 1981. "They're simply more mature than the people in other sports, and they always have a story. In baseball, for example, you have so many teams and so many players and a lot of them are spoiled and don't like to talk. But racing involves a levelling process. It's probably the only sport where if you're in it a long time, you have to lose more than you win. And that's a very humbling experience for people who can't stand to lose, so you'll find those people getting out of it very quickly. Very few people who stay around any length of time aren't nice."

Joe Hirsch treats all people as if they might be nice, or at least as though they showed some potential. And while it cannot be said that Hirsch invented the benefit of the doubt, he puts it to very good use. How else could he have functioned, for 36 seasons, dutifully recording some of mankind's most fantastic dreams in his annual version of the Yellow Brick Road? He called it "Derby Doings."

"The Kentucky Derby is indeed bigger than life," Hirsch wrote in his introduction to the handsome "Kentucky Derby: the Chance of a Lifetime," a vibrant telling of the Derby legend. "I have yet to find an individual who was not affected by the experience."

Straight-faced, drawing upon a moral discipline that has served him so well, Hirsch would put forth the stories of hopeless Derby longshots and their semi-delusional owners and trainers, giving them equal rights to a brief place in the sun alongside the brahmins of the game. It was up to the readers to call them names and rue the way they cluttered the field. Hirsch, for his part, never wasted time sitting in judgment.

"There's always something in racing. Always something new," Hirsch said this week. "Racing has a resiliency . . . that's why I love it so much."

The same can be said of the man who delivered the line. Resilient, consistent, thoroughly professional and passionately fair, Joe Hirsch has set standards his fellow writers can only hope to approximate. As the iconic figure among racing journalists, he is intimidating quite by accident. Nothing could be further from his intent. Joe Hirsch has awakened each morning for the past 50 years wondering how he would share his gift of horse racing on this particular day.

"It's really easy to find people who Joe Hirsch has helped," columnist Skip Bayless told "Spur" long ago. "A better story would be to find somebody he hasn't helped."

Or inspired. Or comforted. Or blessed with a simple word of encouragement. It never took much from Joe - just a simple nod, or his hand on your arm. A few years ago, in the midst of another chaotic Derby scene, Hirsch slipped quietly into the chair next to a daydreaming colleague and placed a small velvet box on the table.

"I thought you might be able to put these to use," he said.

Inside the box, nestled in a groove, rested a pair of plain gold cufflinks. They were square in shape and bore traces of regular wear. In the center of each was the block-lettered monogram "JH." Stunned, the dumbstruck recipient looked up to choke out a thank you, but Joe was gone, back to his desk. Back to work.