01/12/2009 1:00AM

Past the top three, early Derby picture fuzzy


NEW YORK - If you had to make a future-book odds line on the Kentucky Derby right now, and am I glad I don't have to do that just yet, you would probably have Remsen winner Old Fashioned a tepid favorite. After him, you would probably have the Dubai-based duo of Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Midshipman and two-time Grade 1 winner Vineyard Haven. And while none of these three, for a variety of reasons, inspires much confidence, you would then, after an additional isolated horse or two, have a jump to as many 50-1 shots as the math would allow, for that's how murky the early Derby picture looks at the moment.

It was hoped that we would have gotten some clarity to this matter late last week, but it didn't work out that way. Some of us were looking for Indygo Mountain to build on his impressive maiden win last fall in Saturday's Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds. Instead, he backed up after making a tiny middle move, as Friesan Fire, who was mediocre at best in three losses after a successful debut at Delaware Park, capitalized on a perfect trip to score.

Minutes later, eyes turned toward the finale at Gulfstream Park, an allowance race in which Quality Road was expected to show the world what all the fuss over his impressive debut at Aqueduct was about. Sure, Quality Road didn't break sharply, and was pushed into setting fast early fractions. But he was still a profound disappointment after he allowed Theregoesjojo, who was making his first start since his soundly beaten fourth in the Bashford Manor last July, to run by him in the final furlong like he was standing still.

Last Thursday, there were two nine-furlong allowance races for

3-year-olds at Gulfstream, and while Free Country and Danger to Society (both trained by Ken McPeek, as is Theregoesjojo) each ran okay to win, they earned identical Beyer Figures of only 86. So unless an 86 Beyer is the new 96, it's understandable if you're starting to wonder if this 3-year-old crop has any greatness in it.

Dinner with Joe always a classy affair

Joe Hirsch appreciated a great horse as much as anyone. But it is just the kind of person Joe was that he was equally capable of seeing beauty in the sort of chaos seen so far from this Derby class. I had the privilege to have worked with Joe when I worked my way up in my first stint on this paper to being the New York columnist from late 1982 through 1990. So I certainly have memories of Joe. But it's funny how the memories that are the most vivid in the wake of Joe's passing last Friday are seemingly insignificant moments that said so much about the man.

The week I used to hate the most all year was yearling sales week at Saratoga. It would have been one thing if I actually liked horse auctions. But I quickly came to find, somewhat surprisingly, that they bored me to tears. It wouldn't have been so bad if all I had to deal with all day was covering the yearling sales from 7 p.m. through the post-session wrap-up around midnight, but I had my usual morning and afternoon obligations at the track to fulfill for the paper, too, with just enough time in between to stop briefly at home to wash my face.

Joe, of course, kept the same schedule without complaint even though he was considerably older (27 years, it turns out) than me. But while he never said it, I could tell sales week wasn't his favorite, either, if for no other reason than that it cut into his time at his beloved Wishing Well restaurant.

In any case, Joe and I would shoot the breeze at the sales, and he was always concerned whether I was eating enough; back then I was actually skinny. I always told him I was fine until one night I slipped and told him I was starving. He reached into his blazer pocket and produced a big, fat, freshly wrapped egg salad sandwich. Ignoring the obvious question of "Who walks around with an egg salad sandwich in his pocket?" I wolfed that sandwich down. That sandwich tasted great, and I'm not even a fan of egg salad. And it wasn't until much later that the realization hit me that no one walks around with a spare egg salad sandwich in their pocket. This was Joe giving me his dinner.

Dinner was always a big thing with Joe, and one night just before the 1999 Breeders' Cup at Gulfstream Park, I was part of a group Joe hosted at another one of his favorite restaurants, Joe's Stone Crab. On the way to being seated (there was no wait, of course), we passed, unbeknownst to me, a table of several trainers. One of our party stopped to chat and then came to our table and told me that one of those trainers, angry at something I wrote (shocking, I know), wanted to leap the table and punch my face in. I might be wrong, but I always firmly believed that the only reason why my face wasn't rearranged that night is because I was in Joe's company.

But that was another thing about Joe Hirsch: He raised the game of everyone around him.