09/29/2004 11:00PM

You've probably seen this name before


ARCADIA, Calif. - First came the Joe Hirsch Breeders' Cup writing award. Then the Joe Hirsch NTWA Scholarship, the Joe Hirsch Pressbox at Saratoga, the Joe Hirsch Media Center at Churchill Downs, and now the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic on Saturday at Belmont Park.

This is all well and good, and deeply appreciated by Joe Hirsch himself. But don't hold your breath waiting for Hirsch to wax eloquent over such tributes. To do so would violate his lifelong vow of self-deprecation, running contrary to a career of 50 years that was spent calling attention first and foremost to noble Thoroughbreds and the people who bred, owned, rode, and trained them. The writer was never part of the story.

Hirsch, who retired as Daily Racing Form executive columnist last year, is not the first journalist to have his name attached to a stakes race. New Yorkers have been running in the Red Smith, the Damon Runyon, and the Evan Shipman for a number of years. Monmouth annually honors its favorite scribe, Bob Harding, and Calder presents the Pete Axthelm each December.

Out West, at Hollywood Park, one of the top grass races of the summer is known as the Jim Murray Memorial Handicap. Murray, the Pulitzer Award winning columnist, reacted in character:

"Napoleon got a brandy, Caesar got a salad," Murray wrote. "They named a tank after Sherman, furniture after Louis XIV, a candy bar after Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson, and toast after Madame Melba. McKinley got a mountain.

"Big deal! Know what I've got named after me? A horse race! Not a race horse. Lots of guys have that. Me, I got a whole race of my very own. Match that around Washington, D.C., or Paris, France."

Hirsch, in fact, has been saddled with a race horse, as well. Peter Blum, the noted owner and breeder, named a Giant's Causeway colt Joe Hirsch and consigned him to the recent Keeneland fall yearling sale, where he fetched a winning bid of $1.15 million from the Coolmore machine.

"It's a heavy load," Hirsch said, dry as a martini and straight to the point.

He has carried such a burden before. The 2-year-old class of 1967 included not only Vitriolic, Iron Ruler, What a Pleasure, and Queen of the Stage, but also a New Jersey-bred colt named Joe Hirsch, a son of Cohoes out of a Royal Charger mare who was bred by his owner, N.L. Cohen.

"He was trained by Doug Small," Hirsch said. "He was a heck of a trainer, and he got the most out of that colt."

Joe Hirsch won five of 27 starts and placed in two races for New Jersey-breds. Tommy Trotter did not see fit to weight the colt on his year-end list of Experimental Handicap, however, an oversight that must haunt Trotter to this day. Hirsch, to his credit, never held it against him.

On Saturday afternoon, Hirsch will be watching the inaugural version of the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic from his apartment in Manhattan. Since his retirement last year, he has attended only a handful of racing events (there were Hirsch sightings on the dance floor at the Belmont Charity Ball in June), but that does not prevent him from keeping close track of the game he loves.

"I don't get around as well as I used to," Hirsch said. "But I get a lot of phone calls from friends in racing, and I keep up my correspondence."

Adding Joe's name to the Turf Classic is a fitting stroke. For one thing, the field is gathered by invitation, which is what Hirsch extended on countless occasions to fortunate friends and colleagues, treating them to an evening of fine food and good conversation.

Hirsch also enjoys a reputation as a lifelong advocate of international turf competition. He bore witness to the early days of the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel, and he was instrumental in the promotion of the Arlington Million concept that gave the North American continent a signature mid-season event that would appeal to Europeans.

The Turf Classic was inaugurated in 1977 and positioned in November at Aqueduct in hopes of luring late-season Euros. Early participation by the likes of Crow, Trillion, Waya, All Along, April Run, and Anifa made the case that the race was a welcome opportunity. The list of winners includes such domestic champions as Bowl Game, John Henry, Manila, Theatrical, Sky Classic, Sunshine Forever, and Buck's Boy.

Now Hirsch's name leads the way, in a race of comparable class. Still, it might be time to consider other ways to perpetuate his name. Racing has given Hirsch a rich and rewarding life, but there is more to Joe than merely the man who ranged far and wide to produced Derby Doings, At the Post, and Racing in Review. For the next Hirsch testimonial, his friends would suggest an item from the following list:

* A Broadway play.

* A California red.

* A beach in Hawaii.

* A dessert, preferably involving chocolate, and a la mode, of course.

* A line of aviator sunglasses, when they come back in style, which they will.

* A song by Willie Nelson, Hirsch's favorite.

"An airport's not bad," Hirsch said, although, in his case, a Cadillac dealership might be more appropriate.