01/10/2009 12:00AM

Hirsch's quick wit and kindness never quit

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Jim Raftery/TurfFotos
Joe Hirsch at Hialeah in 1959.

When I first saw Joe Hirsch he was 46, an enthusiastic bachelor and bona fide racing celebrity, out West for a big race and dancing with a beautiful blonde at a Santa Anita party. A beautiful blonde I'd tried to date. At that moment I knew in my bones that if I worked hard and paid attention I might have a chance to be as good a writer as Hirsch some day, but I'd always be half the man.

It was of some consolation to learn that Hirsch was Joe Namath's roommate, which meant I was punching way above my weight. It also became an everlasting joy to be counted as Joe's friend, a professional colleague, and then for five years at the end of his career to share a page in our publication. Top billing was never a question. I was lucky to get the same size type.

Joe's passing on Friday morning means that there will be a run on Joe Hirsch stories and delectable Joe Hirsch quotes for the foreseeable future. If you don't have one, ask around. We're obliged to share.

There was his classic review of a restaurant ("I went there once"), his trademark after-dinner demand ("You will have dessert - wouldn't hurt a baby"), and his ability to compress both a weather report and a lesson in practical behavior in a few short syllables during a rainy visit to Saratoga:

"Thanks for the use of the umbrella, Joe."

"When are you going home?"

"Tomorrow."

"You know something I don't?"

Loading into his Caddy one night, a passenger needed to store something in the trunk. Joe obligingly popped the boot and then cracked, "Leave the gun. Take the cannolis." I cried for hours.

Dave Johnson, the award-winning broadcaster and racing commentator, was a Manhattan neighbor and as good a friend as Joe could ever have. Johnson paid him regular visits in the rehabilitation facility that was Joe's home these final months.

"Just two Saturdays ago, he had a bowl of grapes, and he offered me one," Johnson said on Friday, a few hours after hearing the news. "There was also a Spanish-speaking nurse in the room, and he offered her one as well. She thought he wanted to have them washed, so she took the bowl of grapes away. Joe looked at me and said, 'No good deed goes unpunished.' "

For too many years, before he broke his hip last spring, Joe had been battling the disease named for the British physician James Parkinson. It was an awful sentence, gradually eroding Joe's tall, elegant profile and robbing him of simple muscle control, while at the same time allowing his mind to remain alert, bearing helpless witness to the disintegration.

Once, at dinner, Joe had one of his seizures, during which the body loses temporary control and vibrates like a mad gyroscope. His other guests had seen it before. They knew it would soon be over, and that Joe would not want the conversation to be unduly interrupted. I was new to the experience, however, and worried sick. It was Joe who sensed my anguish and assured me the moment would pass.

"It's not as bad as it looks," he said.

It never was. Just as Joe's writing was never self-conscious, he loathed the idea of being the center of attention. He held himself apart, as a privileged witness to history, forever aware that his job was to share the harvest of his incomparable access. As a result, Hirsch could absorb the greatest racing tragedies, embrace the emotion of the moment, and then insist, in his quiet way, that life must go on.

"Cries of grief came from the crowd," he wrote of Go for Wand's fatal breakdown in the 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff, "and as Bayakoa drew off to score by almost seven lengths, many on hand disregarded the outcome and focused on the pitiful scene unfolding in front of their eyes. Horsemen and track employees standing at trackside leaped the inner rail and rushed to lend what comfort and assistance they could, but it was obvious that Go for Wand's injury was mortal. The horse ambulance arrived promptly and a screen was set up around the stricken champion, who was humanely dispatched and carried off. Several hundred newsmen in the jammed press box sat stunned with the realization of the awful scene they were now obliged to report to the world."

If Joe ever bothered to comment about his own condition, it was because he was pressed for an answer. He would not sugarcoat, but neither did he elaborate. He preferred to know how you were doing, the wife, the kids, and have you seen anything that looks like a Derby colt? Even as his illness took control, it was vastly more important that life go on, with as much familiarity as possible, which is why he persisted in working deep into the maturity of his disease, and in entertaining friends with the same enthusiasm that fueled his formative years as racing's man on the scene. The body may have weakened, but his heart danced on.

Joe will be laid to rest on Sunday in New York, his town, in ceremonies that I am sure will be traditional and moving, attended in spirit by the thousands of people he touched through the years, through his words, his wisdom, his kindness. If Joe had his way, though, the day would be filled not with sadness and somber remembrance, but with cocktails, racing banter, and a warm summer wind, like the breezes that tickled the trees to life at his beloved Monmouth Park on a sultry August afternoon. There would be dessert, of course, and music, too, with a big band and a beat, jazz at the proper hour, and then, at Joe's request, his personal anthem, sung Willie's way:

On the road again

Just can't wait to get on the road again

The life I love is makin' music with my friends

And I can't wait to get on the road again

On the road again

Goin' places that I've never been

Seein' things that I may never see again,

And I can't wait to get on the road again.