Oak Tree Meet Founder Hirsch Dead at 85


Clement L. Hirsch, a Newport Beach businessman whose love for horses led to the start of a fall meet at Santa Anita that broadened the California racing calendar, died Thursday night at his home. Hirsch, who had been diagnosed with cancer, was 85.

In 1969, Hirsch and six partners, with the approval of the California Horse Racing Board, began the Oak Tree Racing Assn., which expanded the state's racing days by running an annual fall meet at Santa Anita.

"Horsemen Helping Horsemen" has been the slogan for Oak Tree, a nonprofit meet that pours proceeds into racing-related activities. One of Oak Tree's favorite recipients is the equine research program at the University of California Davis. Oak Tree has contributed about $14 million to the racing industry, and an additional $1 million to charities that include the Winners Foundation, a support group for racetrackers with substance-abuse problems.

Oak Tree now runs 27 to 32 days of racing and twice was the host for the Breeders' Cup, a multi-race day with purses worth several million dollars, but in the rocky beginning the season was scheduled for only 20 days. Hirsch once joked that he and his partners put up $1,000 apiece, "to pay for the stationery," but actually they guaranteed the horsemen the meet and were risking hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Labor negotiations with the parimutuel clerks delayed the start of the inaugural season by four days. But the opener, on a Tuesday, still drew 16,733 fans and comedian Jimmy Durante, a friend of Hirsch's, joined actor Dale Robertson for the winner's circle presentation after Bill Shoemaker rode Tell to victory in the feature race.

"We can be proud of the fact that we have helped the industry in so many ways," Hirsch said in an interview last year, shortly before Oak Tree's 30th anniversary.

Born in St. Louis, Hirsch came from a family that was hugely successful in retailing, but he made his mark in the California meat industry. In the 1930s, Hirsch sold dog food door to door, later founding Kal Kan Foods, a national producer of pet food. Hirsch sold that company to the Mars Co. in 1968. He also was the founder and former chairman of Stagg Foods in Costa Mesa, the West Coast's largest marketer of canned chili.

After a hitch in the Marines during World War II, Hirsch became a horse owner in 1947. One of his horses, Blue Reading, bought out of a claiming race, won seven consecutive races, a few of them stakes.

Hirsch was successful importing horses from South America, campaigning at least 15 of his stakes winners with Warren Stute, his trainer for almost 50 years. Among Hirsch's stakes winners, besides Blue Reading, were Figonero, June Darling, Snow Sporting, Raipillan, Magical Mile and Magical Maiden.

Among his survivors are his wife Lynn and nine children. A memorial service is scheduled at 11 a.m. next Thursday at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, 600 S. St. Andrew's Blvd., in Newport Beach.

Horse Racing Notes

Malek is out of today's $6-million Dubai World Cup and his career is probably over. The Chilean-bred 7-year-old injured his right foreleg during training in the United Arab Emirates. He was second in the race last year and fourth in 1998. Malek won the Santa Anita Handicap in 1998. . . . Trainer Neil Drysdale said that Kentucky Derby contender War Chant will be ridden by Jerry Bailey in the Santa Anita Derby on April 15.

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