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Nov 07, 2003

Racing Today

By: John Piesen


Former correspondent for New York Post and Daily Racing FormSooner later it had to happen, and honestly I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner, but Joe Hirsch, the legendary columnist for Daily Racing Form, last weekend quietly announced his retirement.“I’m packing it in,” Hirsch, who broke a collarbone last summer in a fall in the Joe Hirsch press box at Saratoga, said. “I have to do it. I can’t do any more work.”I’m not going to say here that Joe Hirsch was the perfect man. Like all of us, he had his faults. But when it comes time to weigh the man’s pros and cons, the pros far outweigh the cons.Joe Hirsch was always the perfect gentleman, Joe Hirsch never had an unkind word to say about anyone (with one notable exception). His prose was clean and to the point, he was a teacher and a mentor to hundreds of spports writers, and he was an international goodwill ambassador of racing. And like myself, he was a New Yorker, and a graduate of New York University.But Joe Hirsch’s writing career began as a fluke. When he came to the Racing Form (then the Morning Telegraph), he was assigned by editor Sol Rosen to the desk at the broken-down Telegraph offices on West 52nd Street in Manhattan.But Hirsch couldn’t cut it on the desk, so one morning Rosen ( himself one of the giants of racing journalism) called Joe into his office, and said, in so many words: “Joe, desk work is just not your bag. I need a writer at Rockingham Park. Why don’t you go up there and give it a try?”That conversation happened in 1948. Such is the stuff of which legends are made.I spent 30 years working in the same press boxes with Joe Hirsch, and, yes, I was one of those hundreds of racing writers who benefitted from his friendship and council. For the most part, we got along. But I can think of two exceptions. Back in the late ‘70s, a stakes mare named Just A Game was coming off a long layoff in a grass allowance at Belmont Park. She was 3-5, but came up short, finishing second to a John Nerud mare whose name escapes me.Off that race, Hirsch quoted David Whitely, the trainer of Just A Game, as being delighted with his mare’s performance. “I was thrilled with her race,” Hirsch quoted Whiteley in his page 2 column. “I couldn’t have asked for more.”Well, I blasted Whiteley’s comments in my Through the Binoculars column in the New York Post. The point obviously was that while Whiteley was thrilled, the bettors were ripping up thousands of dollars of tickets on his “short” horse. Of course, my piece was an indirect slap at Hirsch for his tacit approval of Whiteley’s approach.Hirsch never said anything to me, but I guess he wasn’t happy because he didn’t speak to me for six months. And, oh yes, Just A Game won a hundred-grander in her next start. The second exception came after the 1980 Preakness.That was the race in which Angel Cordero Jr., riding Codex, let his horse drift out on the turn into Genuine Risk. Codex went on to win the race, and Genuine Risk finished second. Jockey Vasquez claimed foul against Cordero, but it was tossed out, and the controversy wasn’t resolved until weeks later when the Maryland State Racing Commission held a lengthy hearing, and upheld the result.My position in the Post was that Cordero was only race-riding like he did every day in New York, and basically was not at fault.Hirsch, on the other hand, took the opposite position, and wrote (an unsigned) editorial bashing Cordero. The editorial ran on page one of the Telegraph/Form, and created a firestorm of criticism levelled at Cordero. In his 55-year career that was the only editorial Hirsch ever wrote, and, like I mentioned before, it was the only time he ever knocked a person in print.Joe Hirsch’s passions were racing (obviously) and taking his press box friends to dinner at elegant restaurants. Many times I was included in Joe’s party, notably at the Wishing Well in Saratoga where he was treated as royalty. And, of course, Joe always picked up the check.I remember one evening in Shreveport, La., back in the mid ‘90s. Joe and I covered the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs for the Form, and afterwards, Joe included me in his party for dinner at the best Italian restaurant in Shreveport.When Joe walked into the restaurant, the customers rose as one, and gave him a standing ovation worthy of a rock star. I guess Joe in fact is a rock star in his element.Cal Partee, the venerable Arkansas-based owner of ’92 Kentucky Derby winner Lil E Tee, was sitting at the next table, and, at one point, Hirsch and Partee stood up in the middle of the room, hugged each other, and spent an enjoyable 20 minutes comparing their various medications. A year later, the Form asked me to write the Preakness race lead. Not because I was the best Form writer on the scene (there had to be a dozen DRFers in the press box), but because I was deadline-friendly. I was thrilled by the assignment because of the implications. This was the first Triple Crown race in some 25 years that Joe Hirsch didn’t write the race lead for the Form. I was scared to death, trembling all day, up to the race. As it turned out, the race was easy to write. Louis Quatorze and Skip Away ran one-two all the way around the racetrack. And when the paper came out the next day, and I saw my name on the Preakness lead, it was a little overpowering.Two years later, I was given a second opportunity to “replace” Joe Hirsch. The Form changed hands in mid-August, and the first thing the new management did was to move Joe’s column off page two.It was the day of the annual Round Table meeting at the Gideon-Putnam, and I was assigned to cover it. I wrote this ponderous 2,000-word piece off the meeting, and it took up most of page 2 – where Joe had been forever. Of course, it goes without saying that no one will ever “replace” Joe Hirsch in the turfwriting business. I join the thousands in wishing Joe godspeed and a wonderful retirement. Although I can’t believe for a moment that Joe Hirsch will actually retire. The “dean” of racing writers, Hirsch was the founder and first president of the National Turf Writers’ Assn., and is the only Americam writer to win the Eclipse Award for outstanding writing, and the Lord Derby Award bestowed by the racing writers in Great Britain.Joe’s other honors include the Eclipse Award of Merit, the Jockey Club Medal, the Walter Haight Award and the Joe Palmer Award from the National Turf Writers, amd the William May Award from the Association of Racing Commissioners International.Finally, Joe authored five books, serves on the Hall of Fame selection committee. and, of course, in 2001, the century-old Saratoga press box was named the Joe Hirsch Press Box. Joe never has shown much emotion, but, during the ceremonies that day, I thought I saw Joe Hirsch shed a tear.

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