02/20/2008 12:00AM

Plenty of reasons to celebrate


ARCADIA, Calif. - Friday the 22nd marks the 276th birthday of George Washington, father of our country and breeder of racehorses, although not necessarily in that order. Sure, Washington crossed the Delaware in the dead of winter and later made mincemeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown. But as far as horse racing history is concerned, his best runner Magnolia could not handle a roan colt owned by fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson in a 1790 match race at the Alexandria Race Course, founded by Washington himself. So much for being the house horse.

This week also marks a milestone for another notable racing man and veteran of the U.S. military. Joe Hirsch celebrated his 80th birthday Wednesday at home in his Manhattan apartment. He served this nation in a variety of capacities with the U.S. Army.

"It was right at the end of the Korean War," Hirsch recalled - you don't forget these things. "The first place the Army put me was in graves registration. Good thing I got out of that. I was beginning to like it. One day they tapped every third man and said, 'You're a cook.' So I was a cook, then a truck driver, then I went to Officer's Candidate School to train in artillery. My eyes went bad, so I ended up in the medical services corps in Germany, training to be a doctor. But to call me one would have been a terrible impersonation."

Four years and out, and the Army's loss was horse racing's gain. After a brief stint with the New York Times, Hirsch spent the next half-century writing for first The Morning Telegraph and then the Daily Racing Form, while suffering through such terrible postings as Saratoga, Monmouth, and Hialeah Park.

Hirsch wrote his last Racing Form column in November 2003, but he has yet to cut loose from the game. He remains up to speed on all current events, and any caller or visitor better come prepared with the name of a viable Kentucky Derby contender.

"I'm not doing as well as I'd like, but I'm lucky," Hirsch insisted. "It's been 25 years since I was diagnosed with Parkinson's. My days of going out to celebrate a birthday are over, but it's nice to hear from people."

On the other side of the continent, another battle-scarred racing warrior turned the ripe old age of 10. The Tin Man, still in recovery mode in stall No. 1 at Richard Mandella's Santa Anita barn, was foaled on Feb. 18, 1998.

With any luck at all, The Tin Man would have been back in some sort of action by now for his owners and breeders, Ralph and Aury Todd. Maybe not in the 1 1/2-mile San Luis Obispo Handicap, which is Saturday's feature at Santa Anita, and which he won in February 2003. But certainly some kind of racing plan would have been cooking, if only he hadn't cracked a knee while emerging from the anesthesia administered during diagnostic surgery last October.

It was tense for awhile. The Tin Man's self-inflicted injury was more serious than any of the several racing maladies that he had weathered through a seven-year career, during which he won $3.3 million. Founder in an off leg was very possible, and the fracture was complex. But with the help of the occasional tranquilizer, and more hands on care than you can imagine, he is out of danger and ready for the next chapter of his remarkable life.

"We probably could have sent him to the farm a month ago, but I kind of like having him around," said Mandella, who can be seen late most mornings, hand-walking The Tin Man and letting him bask in the sun.

"The X-rays show good bone growth in the knee, although he's developed an arthritis on the outside of the knee," Mandella said. "He walks a little stiff and he always will. But he's dealing with it okay, and he's not in any pain."

The Tin Man, once a free-running geriatric hero who won the Arlington Million at age 8 and the Shoemaker Mile at 9, now must be content with being described as pasture sound. That pasture, at least for the time being, will be at River Edge Farm in the Santa Ynez Valley, where farm manager Russell Drake will provide The Tin Man with a home for as long as he wants.

"He'll need a little time to be let down and get used to living in a pasture," Mandella added. "If I know him, he will try to run off."

Finally, it is a great relief to report that Siena Valdivia, the 1 1/2-year-old daughter of jockey Jose and Renee Valdivia, will be able to enjoy a happy and healthy second birthday and beyond. Her life-threatening ordeal in a Pasadena hospital with a virulent lung infection ended last week, when she was able to go home and resume the business of being a precocious little girl.

"The challenge right now is to get her weight back on and to clean her little body out from all the narcotics she had to be given," Jose said last weekend. "But just to have her home is a blessing. And before you know it, she'll be playing on the beach at Del Mar this summer."