02/06/2009 12:00AM

Papa Clem tries to live up to name


ARCADIA, Calif. - For a relatively unknown son of Smart Strike, Papa Clem has a healthy chunk of California racing history already in his corner. For that he can thank his namesake, Clement Hirsch, co-founder of the Oak Tree Racing Association with Lou Rowan and one of the founding directors of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

Coming over as the winner of a maiden race from three starts, Papa Clem will make his stakes and 3-year-old debut Saturday in the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at 1 1/16 miles over Santa Anita's main track. The Lewis is part of a muscle-bound program that includes the Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds, the Las Virgenes Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, and the Thunder Road Handicap on the grass, but it is the Lewis that will end up getting most of the buzz. Three-year-olds do that to people this time of year.

Papa Clem was bred and races for Bo Hirsch, 59, who watched his father, Clement, win a host of significant races through the years with stars like June Darling and Figonero. Saturday's card alone tells the tale: During his long and entertaining life in the business, Hirsch won the 1992 Las Virgenes with Magical Maiden, the 1970 Strub Stakes with Snow Sporting, and the 1953 Santa Catalina Stakes with Blue Reading. The Lewis used to be the Santa Catalina.

Magical Maiden just happens to be the granddam of Papa Clem. Besides the Las Virgenes and the Hollywood Starlet, she also won the Lou Rowan Handicap during the Oak Tree meet and the Chula Vista Handicap at Del Mar. Clement Hirsch died, at age 85, in March 2000. That summer, the Chula Vista was renamed the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap.

The last Hirsch foal to hit the ground while he was still alive was produced by Magical Maiden, who gave birth to a daughter of Belong to Me on Feb. 1, 2000. Her name became Miss Houdini, and she was purchased by Bo Hirsch at the estate sale of his father's Thoroughbred holdings. When Miss Houdini won the 2002 Del Mar Debutante, Bo Hirsch said, "It might say Bo Hirsch on the program, but Clement Hirsch won the Del Mar Debutante today."

That was then. Papa Clem is now, and Bo Hirsch knows just how emotionally risky it can be to burden a young runner with a name of such weighty proportions.

"I debated about it," Hirsch said. "But if I was ever going to do it, this colt seemed to be the right one. I got Miss Houdini to Smart Strike before he hit so big, and then the people at the farm in Kentucky where he was raised kept telling me good things about the foal. When it came time to submit the name, I figured let's go for it. Papa Clem is what all the grandkids called my father."

Papa Clem made his first start Nov. 8 at Hollywood Park and finished sixth of 10 going 6 1/2 furlongs. His first competitive step was a stumble at the start. Three weeks later, he displayed his inherited speed before tiring to finish fourth. Then on Dec. 29, at Santa Anita, he won going a mile, and did it after he was headed in the stretch.

"The phone started ringing off the hook after that race," said Hirsch, who credits agent Kathy Berkey with giving him his best bloodstock advice. "Mad money. People crazy to buy any 3-year-old this time of year. I told them I was like my dad - a buyer not a seller - although I'll have to admit I can't rule anything out when they start talking some of these numbers."

Clement Hirsch got his start selling pet food and founding the Kal Kan brand. Once he attained a high profile in horse racing, well, you can imagine the jokes. But the Hirsch business empire embraced a wide range of products, and Bo Hirsch was involved in the operation of Stagg Foods, along with his half-brother Greg Hirsch, until they sold it to Hormel Foods in the mid-1990s. To that point, Bo's professional life basically revolved around the Stagg Chili line.

"Yep, that's what bought the wallpaper," Hirsch said. "I'm starting up another food company now, though, and really enjoying the horses. I found that at first I was kind of liberal in my thinking about how to approach the Thoroughbred business, but now I'm more conservative. Maybe the word is realistic."

It is a widely held notion that Clement Hirsch left instructions that only trainers named "Stute" need apply. The late Warren Stute trained for the elder Hirsch for more than 40 years. Warren's son Steve has trained for Bo, while Warren's nephew Gary Stute trains Papa Clem and several others.

"No, it wasn't in the will," Bo Hirsch said with a laugh. "But dad was a very loyal guy. All the businesses he had, I really don't remember him firing hardly anyone at all. I'm sure he did, but he really gave people the benefit of the doubt.

"Anyway, I'm starting to send horses to a couple other trainers," Hirsch said, in his own defense. "Robbins has one, and we've got a South American filly with Inda."

That would be Jay Robbins, son of Jack Robbins, a founding Oak Tree director alongside Hirsch, and Eduardo Inda, trainer of champion Riboletta, who came to this country in 1968 accompanying horses purchased in Chile, then stayed to work for Warren Stute. The horses were bought by - who else? - Clement Hirsch.