01/12/2009 12:00AM

Information most precious

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The 2009 racing year has begun with the great Joe Hirsch laid to rest, a loss more important in spirit than the physical retirement of Curlin and Big Brown.

The fact that Hirsch was not an avid horseplayer does little to diminish the enormous service he provided to Daily Racing Form readers, who are always seeking clues to fortify a good bet.

Hirsch understood racing in a way that even the most callous of horseplayer appreciated. He told people what was going on behind the scenes of major races time in and time out, starting with his prized Derby Doings, which chronicled the progress of hundreds of 3-year-old colts and fillies trying to win their way towards the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.

The tradition was followed by Steve Haskin and most recently by Jay Privman who – with Mike Watchmaker’s weekly contributions – continues to provide important insights that Hirsch himself commended several times in recent years. Ask Privman and Watchmaker, and they both will tell you that Hirsch set a high bar to reach, much less match.

As a horseplayer first and a contributor to this and other publications second, I can attest to the value in monetary terms to good inside information in the tradition Hirsch established.

During the 1972 Triple Crown, Hirsch subtly revealed Derby winner Riva Ridge’s probable disdain for a sloppy track by tracing back to his scratching from the Hopeful stakes at Saratoga and his defeat by a moderately talented horse named Head of the River in Florida. An impressive winner of the Derby, Riva Ridge was trounced on the rain-drenched Pimlico surface but then came back three weeks later to post an authoritative victory in the Belmont Stakes on a dry and fast surface at Belmont Park.

Horseplayers who paid attention might not have wasted hard coin on the heavy favorite in the Preakness, expecting to see the real Riva Ridge rebound in kind at Belmont.

Before the 1974 Derby, Hirsch was among few writers who suggested that trainer Woody Stephens was sitting on a winning hand with Cannonade and his stablemate Judger. Cannonade, under a brilliant ride by Angel Cordero Jr., won that centennial Derby.

In 1975, Hirsch pointed out the improvement of Steve DiMauro’s late-blooming 3-year-old Wajima, who went on to take the 3-year-old championship after a series of late-season victories.

In virtually every year since the magnificent 1970s, Hirsch schooled the betting public with such insights – often subtle, often surrounded by his excellent prose, or witticisms, or quotes from owners, trainers and stable hands. Hardly a handicapper, Hirsch nonetheless provided invaluable nuggets that helped every DRF reader understand more about what was really going on and what might really happen on the track.

That was a DRF tradition that Hirsch did not invent, but you were a fool to miss his trackside reports that came for nearly 50 years until he was forced to retire because of the Parkinson’s Disease that eventually led to his death on Friday morning Jan. 9.

It does honor to Hirsch that DRF continues to provide insightful trackside reports from the major racetracks every day and from the minor ones at least once per week. Horseplayers who ignore this stream of information – the details, the plans of trainers and the way tracks are playing – are cutting down their odds of a winning season.

This year, Privman and Watchmaker will carry the Derby Doings tradition forward beginning next month, while Privman, Steve Andersen and Brad Free will team up and provide background details pertinent to Southern California’s year-round game.

Mike Welsch will do the same in Florida, with occasional contributions from Privman, as well as Kentucky-based Marty McGee and New York-based David Grening when they come down from the north for major stakes.

Grening and Privman are especially insightful reporters with good eyes for fit horses and work ethics that would make Joe Hirsch proud. Both regularly contribute numerous details that foreshadow and explain wins and losses on the racetrack. Ditto for Andersen, a tireless correspondent on the Southern California beat.

The Florida-based Welsch also clocks horses for DRF during Derby week and the Breeders’ Cup, which gives him an array of insights that horseplayers can utilize. McGee has inside knowledge of trainers and their methods, schooled in part by his trainer brother Paul, a success on the Kentucky circuit.

Handicapper-reporters regularly write about prevailing track trends that are aimed directly at the horseplayer. These include Mary Rampellini in Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana, with Steve Klein and Byron King in Kentucky. Marcus Hersh covers the Chicago action and keeps an eye on Fair Grounds developments in New Orleans. David Litfin handicaps New York, and Brad Free handles Southern California. Alan Shuback, perhaps the most knowledgeable American-based writer on European racing, regularly discusses which horses may or may not be well placed or well meant when shipped to America. Matt Hegarty, a reporter of the highest magnitude, provides unrivaled coverage of the state of the game, its ever-changing rules and political predicaments, and publisher Steven Crist regularly writes probing commentary on issues affecting the game as a whole and horseplayers in particular.

There are other DRF contributors who supply insights into areas that horseplayers can use. That is something too often overlooked and underappreciated by today’s players, who probably were not weaned on Joe Hirsch’s columns and now bring a quick fix, slot-machine mentality to the best, most intellectually challenging game man has ever invented.

At the bottom line, I strongly urge all players to pay more attention to these reports as we move closer to the Triple Crown chase that Joe Hirsch loved and provided such a lasting legacy.

In the meantime, here are my top three American-based horses in training in most divisions that we will be reading about during the next several months. When you see these horses in the company lines of contenders for maiden, allowance races and non-graded stakes, pay attention. Having faced such high quality, the horses you are looking at probably are dropping in class. Moreover, that tried-and-true handicapping nugget came directly from an extraordinary conversation among Dick Carter (aka Tom Ainslie), Jules Schanzer (the original “Sweep”), editor Saul Rosen, and Joe Hirsch in 1968 while I was a novice handicapper for the old Morning Telegraph, (the Eastern edition of DRF).

* 3-year-old males: Old Fashioned, Charitable Man, Square Eddie

* 3-year-old females: Stardom Bound; Maram (turf), Rachel Alexandra

* 4-and-up males: Einstein (turf and dirt), Go Between, Commentator

* 4-and-up females: Zenyatta, Cocoa Beach, Music Note

* 4-and-up male sprinters: Bob Black Jack, Fabulous Strike, Notonthesamepage (a 3-year-old)

* 4-and-up female sprinters: Indian Blessing, Ventura, High Resolve

* 4-and-up turf milers: Kip Deville, Hyperbaric, Ventura (a female)

* 4-and-up turf distance horses: Einstein, Court Vision, Thorn Song.