01/10/2009 12:00AM

Hirsch, dean of writers, dies at 80

John Greco
Joe Hirsch at Churchill Downs, where the press box is named for him.

Joe Hirsch, whose writing and wit graced the pages of Daily Racing Form for nearly 50 years, died early Friday morning at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York after a lengthy battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 80.

Last April, Hirsch fell and broke a hip in his Midtown Manhattan apartment. He had been living in a long-term care facility on Manhattan's Upper West Side until he was transferred to the hospital on Wednesday.

Hirsch was one of the most respected, honored figures in American racing, and the scope of his accomplishments is encyclopedic. He won an Eclipse Award for newspaper writing in 1978 and the Eclipse Award of Merit in 1992. He won the Lord Derby Award from Britain's racing writers, the only writer to win both the Lord Derby Award and an Eclipse Award. He is the only person to win all three awards presented by the National Turf Writers Association - the Walter Haight Award for career achievement, the Joe Palmer Award for meritorious service, and the Mr. Fitz Award for typifying the spirit of racing.

In 2004, the Turf Classic at Belmont Park was renamed the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, and the press boxes at both Churchill Downs and Saratoga Race Course bear his name. He founded and was the first president of the National Turf Writers Association, becoming a mentor to several generations of racing writers.

"Joe Hirsch was much more than just the dean of American racing writers for half a century," said Steven Crist, DRF's publisher. "He was a global ambassador for the sport, a mentor to two generations of journalists, and probably the most universally respected figure in the world of horse racing."

Beginning in 1957 and for nearly 40 years thereafter, Hirsch compiled the Daily Racing Form's popular Derby Doings every spring leading up to the Kentucky Derby. He traveled far and wide to chronicle and promote racing. He attended the Arc de Triomphe in Paris for the first time in 1957, attended the first Dubai World Cup in 1996, and covered every Kentucky Derby, beginning in 1956, for nearly 50 years until his retirement. He covered races in England, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, and South Africa, as well as at every major track in North America.

Because of the trust and respect he commanded from those he covered, Hirsch frequently broke stories, most notably the news that Dancer's Image had tested positive for an illegal medication in the 1968 Kentucky Derby and the announcement by John Gaines in 1982 regarding the founding of the Breeders' Cup races.

The esteem in which Hirsch was held might best be illustrated in his friendship with Sonny Werblin, whom Hirsch first met when Werblin was a racing executive in New Jersey. Werblin also was co-owner of the New York Jets, and in 1965 the Jets drafted a promising quarterback from Alabama.

Joe Namath had a playboy reputation, and Werblin asked Hirsch if he would room with Namath and take him under his wing. Seemingly opposite in personality and temperament, Hirsch and Namath nevertheless roomed together from 1965 to 1976 and became lifelong friends

"We hit it off immediately," Namath wrote in Daily Racing Form when Hirsch retired.

Hirsch was born in New York City in 1928. He attended the University of New Hampshire and New York University, from which he earned a degree in journalism. After working as a stringer for The New York Times, Hirsch joined The Morning Telegraph, a sister publication to Daily Racing Form, as a copy editor in 1948.

He had a four-year stint in the Army before returning to the Telegraph in 1954. In the spring of 1955, he got his first assignment writing for Daily Racing Form. He was promoted to executive columnist in 1974, and retired in 2003.

Hirsch believed that "good racing is good business." He thought the pure sport of racing was the best lure for fans, and he had special admiration for the top horses, trainers, jockeys, and executives. He was particularly close to jockeys Eddie Arcaro and Bill Shoemaker.

When Shoemaker retired in 1990, Hirsch wrote: "He not only won more races than any jockey in history, and had a higher percentage than most, but so many of his victories came in important races, when the stakes were high and the competition at its keenest. Hemingway called it grace under pressure. Shoe was the epitome of grace; a Fred Astaire of the saddle."

In 1964, Hirsch wrote of five-time Horse of the Year Kelso, "Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso, but only once."

After the death of Go for Wand in the 1990 BC Distaff, Hirsch wrote: "Only the best of the breed will try to the death. The average horse, once he's had enough, will coast home, but the champions don't know how to coast. They only know how to win."

Hirsch was a staunch traditionalist.

The Triple Crown, he wrote, "isn't an annual presentation that inevitably must go to a mediocre individual or team holding a hot hand. No ordinary horse can win the Triple Crown. Its components and its ruthless time frame are too demanding. Indeed, even the extraordinary horse who is not incredibly lucky will fail, for it takes all of that, and a little more, to accomplish a sweep of the classics."

When Garden State Park closed in 2001, he wrote, "And so we lose another track to the passing parade. Narragansett Park, Jamaica, Tropical Park, Ak-Sar-Ben, Longacres, Washington Park, Bowie. They fall like autumn leaves, with only memories of great horses and magic moments left behind."

Hirsch was fond of racing's offbeat characters. One of his favorites was Saul Silberman, the president of Tropical Park in Miami, who had a tote machine in his office and would hand out envelopes with $20 bills to patrons on New Year's Day. "Take it, dummy," Silberman would bellow to those who hesitated, Hirsch wrote.

His grace and sharp mind in print and in private were legendary.

Before the 1973 Kentucky Derby, Hirsch wrote of Secretariat's loss in the Wood Memorial: "Like Watergate, it didn't seem possible, but there it was."

Before the 1974 Derby, Hirsch wrote of trainer Woody Stephens: "He is in approximately the same position as Sir Edmund Hillary, poised a few yards below Everest's summit and prepared for the final surge to the top." Stephens won that Derby, with Cannonade.

He had an understated, yet rapier, wit.

A turf writer once lamented the weather befouling a major race, calling it "a shame."

"It's a shame what happened to Marie Antoinette," Hirsch replied.

No writer worked harder, longer, or was more prolific than Hirsch. He would cut a dashing figure in the mornings in the barn area, immaculately dressed in coat and tie. In an era before cell phones, the Internet, e-mail, and computers, Hirsch always had the latest, most accurate news in his columns, especially Derby Doings.

Even in the latter part of his career, when the progression of Parkinson's disease made typing difficult, Hirsch would still turn out a column, his colleagues marveling at how well he wrote, and how tough and dedicated he was to get the work done.

"I cannot imagine that there was ever a more dedicated or courageous sportswriter," Namath wrote when Hirsch retired. "Despite a 20-year battle against Parkinson's disease, Joe continued to travel the world to cover the sport he loved, even when those columns took longer and longer to type and complete.

"I know something about playing in pain and the body giving out on you as an athlete. Until finally calling it quits at age 74, his mind as sharp as ever, Joe Hirsch played in pain but never once complained."

For much of his professional life, Hirsch would winter in Florida, go to Kentucky in the spring and remain in Louisville until, as he often said, "the tests come back" from the Derby. Following the Triple Crown, he would spend the rest of the spring and summer in New York City, except for decamping to Saratoga. In the fall, before the advent of the Breeders' Cup, Hirsch would often go to the Arc de Triomphe or the Washington D.C. International, then head for Miami in the winter and begin the cycle anew.

Hirsch liked to dine out and dine well. He became close friends with the maitre d's and owners at the best restaurants in the country. His best clout was at Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach, where the usual two-hour wait for customers was reduced to "Right this way, Mr. Hirsch" when he arrived.

Hirsch liked to invite several people to dinner each night on the road and always insisted on picking up the check. It was a requirement of guests to have a full meal - cocktail, appetizer, main course, wine, dessert, and coffee. If someone would try and beg off dessert, Hirsch would implore that having dessert "wouldn't hurt a baby."

Once, a greenhorn attempted to pick up the check and made a show of it. Hirsch grabbed the check. "In order to be a good host," he softly scolded, "you must first be a good guest."

Hirsch had another great passion in his life, baseball. A dedicated Yankees fan, he watched their games nightly after his retirement. He went to his first game in the 1930s with his father to see Babe Ruth.

Hirsch has no immediate survivors. A funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, 630 Amsterdam Ave. and 91st St. in Manhattan.

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