Hirsch Leaves Mark on Sport

Times Staff Writer

There were some prominent horses missing from the recent Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita, but the most noticeable absentee was missing from the press box, not the racetrack.

For the first time since the Breeders' Cup's inaugural in 1984, Joe Hirsch of the Daily Racing Form -- who reported on the event's genesis in 1982, typically, before anyone else -- was not there to cover. They should have hollered to stop the presses before the first race was run.

Hirsch, 75, has also covered every Kentucky Derby and every Triple Crown race since 1956, but the painful throes of Parkinson's disease, which have been with him for years, are forcing this journalistic legend into retirement. Millions of words later, Hirsch's farewell column will run on Nov. 27 in the Racing Form, where he set up shop for half a century.

"The travel's just gotten to be too much," said Hirsch, who fell in the press box, the one that bears his name, at Saratoga this past summer and cracked a collarbone. "If you can't hit the road in this game, there's no way to keep up."

Between his morning visits to virtually every track in the country and a long-distance phone bill that sometimes floored the bean-counters at the Form, Hirsch gave his readers wall-to-wall coverage and commentary. He seldom flogged the game -- his criticism of Angel Cordero for an unsportsmanlike ride in the 1980 Preakness was a notable exception -- but behind the scenes he gave the sport a direction that its leaders welcomed, needed and heeded.

Hirsch's telling John Gaines, a founder of the Breeders' Cup, that he was on to something, and Hirsch's waxing enthusiastic about a possible million-dollar race at Arlington Park played no small part in the introduction of those events.

Along the way, the dry-witted Hirsch has been a fun-loving raconteur, gourmand and check-grabber who has nurtured dozens of fledgling turf writers who barely knew the withers from a whinny. Beating Hirsch to a restaurant check -- is there someone out there who has actually done this? -- has been an all-day job.

Hirsch says that Secretariat and Kelso were the best horses he ever saw, and ranked Native Dancer just behind them.

"Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso ... but just once," Hirsch wrote many years ago.

Hirsch used to compare very good horses to Hindoo, the 1881 Kentucky Derby winner, as though he had been there for that race too. At a dinner in Oklahoma once, jockey Bill Shoemaker introduced Hirsch by saying:

"No one knows Joe's age, but the first story he wrote was about Ben-Hur."

Hirsch took the podium and said:

"You're mistaken, Shoe. I never covered a chariot race in my life."

Hirsch and another Joe -- the quarterback who answered to Namath -- shared a Manhattan apartment the first five years Namath played for the New York Jets. Sonny Werblin, who owned racehorses and the Jets, introduced them in Florida, where Hirsch, an old friend, was covering the races.

"What did you study at Alabama," Hirsch asked Namath early on, "basket weaving?"

"That course was all filled up," Namath said. "So I took the next easiest -- journalism."

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