07/28/2017 3:06PM

Hovdey: Flame of Hirsch, Haskell still alight in major stakes

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Barbara D. Livingston
In the Haskell Irish War Cry will be running in the colors of Isabelle de Tomaso, daughter of the race's namesake, Amory L. Haskell.

There is every chance that the racing game could have survived without the influence of Amory Lawrence Haskell or Clement Lang Hirsch. Good thing, though, the game didn’t have to try.

Born a generation apart, their spheres of immediate influence never really intersected, except as towering patrons of the sport who applied their position and wealth toward fundamental shifts in the racing universe.

Haskell, born in Manhattan in 1893, was the son of a General Motors and duPont executive. He spent World War I in the Naval Aviation Service, followed his father into the automotive industry, then made his own fortune in safety glass. In the late 1930s, Haskell turned his attention to the revitalization of the moribund New Jersey racing scene and its flagship track, Monmouth Park.

Hirsch hit the ground in 1914, the son of a St. Louis retailer, and migrated to California, where he started his own pet food company. World War II intervened, during which Hirsch enlisted in the Marines and partook in a nasty little exercise on Guadalcanal. His postwar business life included the expansion of the Kal Kan pet food brand and its sale to the Mars Inc. conglomerate, as well as the founding of Stagg Foods, known for its canned chili.

Haskell was a lifelong horseman whose several titles included Master of the Hounds. For Hirsch, horses were an acquired passion.

“Dad and a friend used to go to the dog races, and they overheard this guy talking about putting a dog down that wasn’t worth keeping anymore,” recalled Bo Hirsch, Clement’s son and a Thoroughbred owner and breeder in his own right.

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“They bought him for two and a half dollars, nursed him back to health, and ended up winning a ton of money with him, for that time,” Hirsch said. “That’s how he got the bug, and it wasn’t long before he got involved with Thoroughbreds.”

Once World War II was in the books – thanks to Clement Hirsch and about 16 million other American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines – Amory Haskell and his partners were able to open Monmouth Park and usher in a new era of Mid-Atlantic racing. Shortly after Haskell’s death in 1966, the premier race of the summer meet was renamed in his honor.

On Sunday, the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational will have its 50th anniversary running at Monmouth Park, the house that Haskell built. The race has attracted such 3-year-olds as Practical Joke, McCraken, Girvin, and Battle of Midway, although a considerable amount of emotional support will be heaped upon Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry, bred and owned by Isabelle de Tomaso, the daughter of Amory Haskell.

Later that day, Del Mar will present the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes for fillies and mares, featuring Stellar Wind and Vale Dori. Bo Hirsch does not have a horse in the mix, but he will be front and center to honor the winner of the race that bears his father’s name.

“All of my horses seem to be on their way to retirement or 2-year-olds not ready to run,” Hirsch said. “But you don’t have to tell me how tough this game is. I learned that from my dad.”

Clement Hirsch made a mark initially as one of California’s most successful owners. His distinctive black-and-gold silks were flown by such nationally ranked runners as Blue Reading, June Darling, Figonero, and Magical Maiden, and the stable has been carried on by Bo Hirsch with stakes winners like Miss Houdini and Papa Clem.

More importantly, Hirsch was a driving force in the formation of both the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and the Oak Tree Racing Association and served as president of both groups.

In 1969, the DMTC acquired its first in a series of 10-year leases from the state of California to operate a non-for-profit meet that quickly grew from a summer sideshow to a major California player. Later that same year, Hirsch and a group of like-minded horsemen founded Oak Tree, leasing Santa Anita Park for a month of sport that plowed its profits into Thoroughbred welfare and veterinary research while answering a demand for first-class autumn racing in the West.

Both Haskell and Hirsch were larger-than-life figures. If there are similar characters striding the modern racing stage, they are keeping themselves well hidden. Haskell was a big deal in Republican Party politics, headed the prestigious National Horse Show, and even dabbled in acting. Hirsch was no actor – his distinctive, reedy voice could be heard long before he came into view – but he ran with a glitzy crowd.

“Duke Wayne, his fishing buddy, invited dad to the Academy Awards the year Wayne was nominated for ‘True Grit,’ ” Bo Hirsch said.

This would have been early 1970, only a couple of months after Oak Tree made its successful debut. Hirsch was sitting next to John Huston, who won Oscars for writing and directing “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” According to Bo Hirsch, part of the evening’s conversation went something like this:

“You know, John, I think Duke’s got a real good shot to win this,” said Clement.

Huston scoffed at the thought. Wayne was in against Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Dustin Hoffman, and Jon Voight.

“Clement,” replied Huston, “stick to pet food.”

Wayne won. And, lucky for horse racing, Clement Hirsch did not stick to pet food.