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Jan 09, 2009

Thru The Binoculars

By: JOHN PIESEN


"Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso.

"But only once."

As the national columnist for Daily Racing Form, Joe Hirsch wrote that tribute to America's super horse back in the mid-'60s.

And so it occurred to me upon learning of the passing of Joe Hirsch this morning at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City, that...once upon a time there was a racing writer named Joe Hirsch.

But only once.

In the coming days, you will be reading eulogies from writers much more eloquent than this one, but none will feel Joe's loss more deeply.

For the 30-plus years I worked with Joe Hirsch in racetrack press boxes, I never heard anyone say a cross word about Joe. What's more, I never heard -- or read -- Joe say a cross word about anyone else.

Oh, forgive me.

There was one time.

But only one.

Joe wrote a scathing column about Angel Cordero's tactics in the 1980 Preakness. Joe felt that Angel Cordero Jr., riding Codex for the then unknown D. Wayne Lukas, brutalized Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk turning into the stretch.

Personally, I felt that Cordero was merely race-riding, but I respected Joe's opinion, and his passion. As a result, I gained even more respect for Joe. And I never lost that respect...never more so than when he was battling the unforgiving Parkinson's disease in his final years.

Rarely a day went by, especially at Saratoga and Derby Week at Churchill, that an aspiring turf writer would come to Joe for advice. And Joe would always stop what he was doing to give him or her 10 minutes. Or 20. Whatever it took.

I always felt a special bond with Joe, the dean of American turf writers. We were both Jewish kids from the streets of New York, we both graduated from NYU, we both got our start in the newspaper business on the sports copy desk, we both wound up at Daily Racing Form, and we both were New Jersey and New York columnists for the Form.

Of course, there was one huge difference: If I was Aqueduct Racetrack, Joe was Belmont Park...and Saratoga.

Speaking of Saratoga, I can remember the Thursday afternoon back in the '90s when the entire Saratoga press corps and NYRA brass gathered in the press box to honor Joe by naming the press box The Joe Hirsch Press Box.

As the ceremony began, I raced down to a clubhouse dining room to find Mary Lou Whitney, one of Joe's closest friends. I found her at her usual table, surrounded by friends and admirers, and told her that she needed to accompany me upstairs to the press box.

We got there just as the ceremony was winding down, and Mary Lou threw her arms around Joe, and Joe smiled back sheepishly. That was the photo the dailies ran the next day,

For all that Joe had done for me through the years, that was the least I could have done for him.

Yes indeed...once upon a time there was a man named Joe Hirsch.

"But only once."

The passing of Joe Hirsch transcends other events this weekend in the racing world, but there are other names in the news.

Notably...

JESS JACKSON

The biggest (only?) surprise in the release yesterday of the finalists in the various Eclipse Award categories is the absence of Jess Jackson, Curlin's owner, among the finalists for Eclipse Owner.

The voters preferred IEAH Stables, Godolphin Racing and Stronach Stables.

This was very surprising because Jackson has been celebrated for running Curlin at 4.

Perhaps -- and this is only speculation -- there was a backlash against Jackson gifting the national turf writers with bottles of wine from his California wineries with Curlin's photo on the label.

One writer was quoted in this venue last week as saying "...it will take more than a bottle of wine to get me to vote for Curlin for Horse of the Year."

KEN McPEEK

On Thursday afternoon at Gulfstream Park, trainer Ken McPeek won both 3-year-old allowance races with Free Country ($6.80) and Danger to Society ($4.60). Both colts are looking like legit prospects for the Florida Derby and the Triple Crown.

(It must be noted that the John Piesen Hot Line (888 612 2283) nailed both winners, and later completed a 3-for-3 day by hitting the $77.60 exacta box in race nine.)

Note that jockey Albarado made the round trip from New Orleans for the ride on Danger to Society.

COLE NORMAN

It was reported Thursday that Cole Norman, facing six years in state prison for vehicular homicide in Hot Springs, Ark., on Feb. 5, 2007, will be paroled in two weeks.

Before the tragedy, Norman, 40, won six consecutive training titles at Oaklawn Park, and nine overall at Louisiana Downs.

Norman, who has fought substance abuse, \ has to consider himself very fortunate to get this early parole. Whether he gets his career back is up to the racing authorities. The important thing is that he goes straight, and gets his life back on track.

I got to know and respect Norman and his family in my years on the job at Oaklawn. Like everyone else, he deserves a second chance.

LARRY JONES

Old Fashioned, 3-for-3 for trainer Jones last year at 2, worked a half-mile in :48 2/5 on Wednesday at Fair Grounds. The Southwest at Oaklawn may be his first start as a 3-year-old.

Jones also has three of his top guns in action Saturday at Fair Grounds: Friesan Fire in the LeComte, Just Jenda in the Tiffany Lass, and Honest Man in the Louisiana Handicap.

Needless to say, all have major shots.

JOSEPH AND ALICIA ORTEGA

Horse owners Joseph and Alicia Ortega were among the nine people murdered in that horrible Christmas Eve shooting in Covina, Cal.

Return of the King, who was owned by the Ortegas, and who now races in the name of their son James, won the second race Saturday at Santa Anita, a six-furlong race for $40,000 claimers.

Watching at a Jersey simulcast facility, I couldn't understand why there were hundreds of people in the winner's circle, many of them crying and hugging. Winning jockey Pedroza was in tears.

Now I know why.

VLADIMIR CERIN

Trainer Cerin, one of about 50 horsemen meeting Wednesday morning in the Santa Anita grandstand to discuss the pros and cons of the new Pro-Ride surface, on which five horses have broken down thus far at the meet, was quoted thusly in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune:

"Training on this track is like walking on a minefield. The question is, who will be next?

"I don't know how to fix it. I just can't have it the way it is."

PAT POPE

Pat Pope, the long-time Oaklawn Park racing secretary, has been appointed racing secretary at Delaware Park, effective in April. Pope replaces Izzy Trejo, who resigned last Fall to accept a stewards' position at Turf Paradise.

FRANCISCO TORRES

Torres, the second leading rider at Fair Grounds with 30 winners, was fortunate to avoid serious injury in a spill during training hours Thursday morning.

Torres played the role of Braulio Baeza in the recent TV movie Ruffian. His selection to play Baeza was an obvious one. They have identical riding styles.

Have a good weekend. See you back here Tuesday.



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