Joe Hirsch One of a Kind

At about 4:30 in the afternoon, the skies opened up, turning the Monmouth Park surface into a sea of slop. As a reporter covering my first race for a trade weekly, and having gotten to know the horses and their grooms up close and personal that afternoon, I was extremely disappointed to say the least.

Dejected, I made my way up to the press box, and the first person I saw was Joe Hirsch, who was sitting at the Daily Racing Form desk overlooking the track. The perfect shoulder to cry on, I thought. Joe would understand my disappointment. I walked over to him and said, "Hi Joe, it's a shame about the track."

Joe, who had covered thousands of races on a sloppy track, slowly turned toward me, looked up, and without hesitation, said, "Steve, it was a shame about Marie Antoinette."

Wow, did that throw me back on my heels and put everything in proper perspective. Yes, a sloppy track at Monmouth was indeed not quite as tragic as losing one's head on the guillotine. Where Joe came up with that one I have no idea, but it was just the first of many profound and comforting words of wisdom from the most amazing and unique individual I have ever met.

I'll never forget the day in late winter of 1994. I was sitting at my desk at the Daily Racing Form in Hightstown, N.J., when our editor at the time, George Bernet, called me into his office. He said he had just received a call from Joe Hirsch, who was about to start his 38th year writing "Derby Doings," the feature he founded back in 1957 that had helped catapult him from beat reporter to living legend. This was his signature, his single most identifiable piece of writing. Joe, in 1994, was beginning to suffer the effects of Parkinson's disease and other maladies. He called George and delivered the bombshell. "Give 'Derby Doings' to Steve," he said.

I was flabbergasted, shocked, and, most of all, honored. This was Lou Gehrig telling Yankees manager Joe McCarthy to bench him and put the kid in after a record 2,130 consecutive games.

For the next nine years, I never once looked at Joe without being in awe of him. Although his body withered and became more fragile with each passing year, his mind remained as fertile as ever. He could fall asleep during dinner and pick up the conversation without missing a beat. He could doze off while writing his story, wake up from the pinging noise of his nose hitting the keyboard, and then return to writing without even pausing to get his bearings.

How he put out a column every day, while traveling to places like California and Dubai, was nothing short of amazing. Anytime someone asked Joe how he was doing, he'd always answer, "Couldn't be better." And this was after taking 20 minutes to put on one of his cuff links.

He took me and my DRF colleague, Ed Fountaine, under his wing and always shared his wisdom, wit, and knowledge willingly. Between us, we have so many Joe Hirsch stories it would take volumes to put them all in print. Our dinners with Joe were an unforgettable experience. Besides horses and beautiful women, Joe loved good food. When you went out with him you were treated like royalty. There wasn't a restaurant owner or maitre d' who didn't welcome him with open arms. You could walk into Joe's Stone Crab in South Miami Beach, with a two-hour wait, and wouldn't even break stride as you were led to the best table in the place. Where Joe walked the seas parted. But this kind of respect was something Joe commanded, not demanded. If you wanted to offend Joe and get him upset, just try to pick up the check.

Joe existed on a different plane than other people, though he'd never admit it. Whether he was fraternizing with Sonny and Marylou Whitney or sharing a banana with the jock's room attendant at Monmouth, Joe made everyone he met feel equally as comfortable in his presence.

There was no one who used words so proficiently. Each one took on a life of its own.

As Joe grew older his driving became infamous. During the Oaklawn Park meeting one year, he totaled the car he was driving after falling asleep at the wheel and meeting a tree head-on. A few months later, at a Daily Racing Form dinner in Louisville, one of the wives mentioned to Joe she had heard what happened in Arkansas. Joe responded, “Yes, it’s quite a feeling waking up with an air bag in your face.”

On another occasion in Miami, Joe went to pick up George Bernet at his hotel before dinner. Not seeing the round grassy island in front of the hotel, Joe, instead of driving around it, drove right on top of it with a thud. He looked out his window, saw where he was, and commented, “Oh, turf course.”

Joe had words of wisdom for every occasion. Following Alysheba’s victory in the 1988 Meadowlands Cup, owner Clarence Scharbauer was in the press box being interviewed, and instead of discussing the race kept bemoaning the fact that the chart of Alysheba’s victory in his previous start, the Woodward Stakes, had him winning by a neck when Scharbauer insisted it should have been a half-length. Scharbauer spotted Joe standing off by himself and of course turned to him for understanding.

“Joe, you saw that race, he won by a half-length, not a neck.”

Joe, without hesitation, replied, “You’ll get a better price on him next time.”

Joe received every award imaginable in racing, from every organization. There was one period when he was winning one award after another. Joe, although honored, dealt with all the adulation with his typical dry sense of humor and humility. After hearing about his most recent award from the City of Louisville I congratulated him. Joe, with a tinge of embarrassment, said. “Thank you, Steve. I guess the only proper thing to do now is die.”

No one who knew Joe could name a greater ambassador for racing. He was always upbeat and positive, and concentrated on the beauty and poetry of the sport.

He had a love affair with the Derby, and would always say, “I never met a Derby I didn’t like.” But close behind was the Preakness and Belmont. Joe loved the stories behind the horses, and when he arrived at a trainer’s barn looking for a story or the latest news, the trainer would take Joe into his office and sit there with him for anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. That was the respect they had for him.

Joe lived a flamboyant life, sharing an apartment for 11 years with New York’s most eligible bachelor, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, known around The Big Apple as Broadway Joe. Let’s just say it was not easy, in fact darn near impossible, to get Joe to reveal any of the escapades that went on in that apartment.

Joe was close friends with Jets owner Sonny Werblin at the time, and it was Werblin who asked Joe to stay close to his star athlete and act as a stabling influence.

“Joe learned a lot about women from me over the years, but I learned so much more from him,” Namath wrote in a 2003 tribute to Hirsch in the Daily Racing Form. “He always tried to help point me in the right direction, to teach me about life. Because of him, I learned some things about respect, a little about discipline and a whole lot about people.”

Namath was only one of the many people who learned about life from Joe.

During the 1992 Breeders’ Cup at Gulfstream Park, my colleague Ed Fountaine, while covering the Sprint, had his laptop malfunction and lost his entire story. Visibly upset, he went to Hirsch for solace.

“Joe, I can’t believe it, I just lost my story and have to re-write the whole thing,” he said. Hirsch, seeing how distressed Ed was, put his arm around him and said, “Ed, you’ll be a better man for it.”

We were all better for knowing Joe Hirsch.

32 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Cgriff

Big shoes for you, Fountaine and all the other remaining turf writers to fill, Steve.  He was certainly in the same league with Charlie Hatton and Red Smith.

You couldn't have had a better mentor, though.  The gifts he shared with you as a writer and the stories he put to the page for his readers are quite the legacy.  

He will be missed and always cherished by anyone who loves a great story about racing, horses and life.

09 Jan 2009 10:10 PM
Barry Irwin

Steve, I feel really bad about Joe dying, because I think that I am personally responsible for him dying before his time. He was my supervisor when I wrote a column for Daily Racing Form and I am certain that I took a minimum of 2 years off his life with my antics. He was one of a kind. A lovely guy.

09 Jan 2009 10:49 PM
Bellwether

say it ain't so Joe...Long Live The King!!!

09 Jan 2009 11:33 PM
The Deacon

Joe Hirsch a true throwback to a better time. A man of wit, of passion, and commitment. He will be missed. For every ending there is a beginning, and Steve the baton has been passed to you. You have earned it...........

10 Jan 2009 2:43 AM
geegees

I grew up reading his stories and devoured every Derby story from the time I could read.  His writing and his persona will be greatly missed by all who have ever read his written words.  Im glad we now have writers like you who care about the readers to write stories like you do.  While Joe Hirsch will be sadly missed the torch has been passed

10 Jan 2009 6:34 AM
Wallymac

Never met the man but certainly enjoyed reading his great stuff starting in 1964 when I graduated college and moved north to south Jersey.  May he rest in peace.

10 Jan 2009 7:27 AM
Brian McLean

I can’t believe he lived with Joe Namath for 11 years or so. Broadway Joe and Gentleman Joe had to be the original Felix and Oscar. Steve do you have a funny story of this ‘mismatch’ you might be able to share?

10 Jan 2009 8:26 AM
txhorsefan

From reading your lovely words of tribute to Joe Hirsch, I wish that I had been reading DRF and following racing more closely when he was actively writing.  Thank you for sharing your heartfelt memories and I hope that you will take comfort in knowing that you are continuing his legacy with your own terrific writing.

10 Jan 2009 8:30 AM
Tiznowbaby

When I was fortunate enough to go to my one and only Derby, I saw Joe in the paddock. All I could think was, oh wow, that's him! What an exception writer and person.

10 Jan 2009 9:02 AM
JSW2759

I remember the first time I worked the Derby with the Form crew.  Joe would be at his desk and anyone that came into the press box would come and pay their respects to Joe.

We have lost many of the old guard of the Daily Racing Form in the past few years, Cliff Guilliams, Dean Williams and now Joe Hirsch.  Your will all be missed.

10 Jan 2009 9:27 AM
Umatilla Joe

Steve:

I always read Joe's columns in the DRF back when it cost 50 cents. Between he and Kent Hollingsworth, I never missed a word. Finally, I saw him at The Wishing Well near Saratoga in the mid 90's surrounded by other guys (you may have been there), but Parkinson's was already taking its toll. You could see the respect he received and I wanted to meet him but it was difficult with his physical condition. Your comments and insight into this great jouralist and his life has given much insight to his life. What a compliment to be chosen as his successor.

10 Jan 2009 10:09 AM
Leslie

I was a horse crazy 12 year old, and every Friday night I would get a racing form, take it to a regular babysitting gig, and start with Joe Hirsch and devour whatever he wrote.

Those were happy times!

10 Jan 2009 11:00 AM
Steve Haskin

U Joe, good year to win Joe's favorite race :). Is he on schedule? Last worked Dec. 31.

10 Jan 2009 12:31 PM
David

Steve, you were right. Joe is 1/10 among writers. But I have you at 4/5 second choice...

10 Jan 2009 12:33 PM
slewlover

Mr.Hirsch was in a class by himself. I still have the DRF from the triple crown races of 1977. I think I'll read them over today.

RIP

10 Jan 2009 1:49 PM
E Mitchell

Joe was an original. A mentor and an example to us all on and off the track. He also helped keep alive racing's rich history. Last night in Joe's honor, I revisited his collection of questions and answers published in The Morning Telegraph and Daily Racing Form. There are so many gems buried in this anthology, which so clearly illustrates how much the racing game has changed.

Joe takes one question from a reader about Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons preparing Nashua for the 1956 Widener Handicap off of morning works. Fitzsimmons vanned Nashua from Tropical Park to Hialeah five days before the race and works him a mile and a quarter in 2:01 4/5. Nashua goes on to win the race in 2:02. Joe writes: "Eddie Arcaro has always said Nashua had more natural ability than any horse he ever rode, including Citation and Kelso - but that he didn't always want to use it."

Joe, thanks for preserving the history and the tales. We'll miss you.

10 Jan 2009 2:06 PM
JER

Hard to believe he's gone.  I Think of all the hour's spent with him over the 40 years I worked for the FOrm.  

10 Jan 2009 2:55 PM
Karen2

You were blessed to have known him Steve and although I did not know Joe, from the sounds of it, you have some big shoes to fill. I would say that you are filling them nicely.

10 Jan 2009 4:41 PM
Phil McSween

Steve,

Just wanted to say how much i enjoyed your column on the passing of your and racing's dear friend, Mr. Joe Hirsch.  

As part of the tribute to Joe, the DRF has republished selected excerpts from Mr. Hirsch's brilliant career.  

I was especially interested in the story Joe wrote about the wise guy betting scheme at Narragansett Park.   Wow !!!  THAT was a fascinating piece of journalism.    

In one of his Mr. Hirsch's obits, the DRF's Jay Privman wrote...

After the death of Go for Wand in the 1990 BC Distaff, Hirsch wrote: "Only the best of the breed will try to the death. The average horse, once he's had enough, will coast home, but the champions don't know how to coast. They only know how to win."

The same sentiments could apply to Mr. Hirsch himself.    The best of his kind and time.....driving hard to the wire....his superb coat shiney throughout his magnificent trip.      

Phil McSween

10 Jan 2009 7:53 PM
Rob Whiteley

Steve ...... Edward R. Murrow, Jerry Izenberg, and Joe Hirsch were the three major three reasons I, at one time, wanted to become a journalist.  Now that the opportunity has passed me by, I take great pleasure in knowing that you, Steve, are there to carry on.  I celebrate all that Joe meant and will always mean, and I celebrate you and your talent, passion, dedication, and professionalism,and knowing that you are there to carry on. Thanks for being there and all you do and mean.

11 Jan 2009 12:18 AM
Golden Gate

Steve,

I am really sorry about your friend passing on. It sure was great that you had a mentor like him.

11 Jan 2009 6:34 AM
Abbie Knowles

I remember reading and enjoying Mr Hirsch's articles in the Sporting Life many years ago and he is the kind of writer who would have enthralled me with his writing.  He clearly loved everything about racing, the horses and most of those involved in our wonderful sport.  

However i am equally sure he was  not blind to the corruption there is in racing still (though things are improving!) or the negligence involving the horses which can lead to tragic deaths or them not having good homes once their careers are over!!!!   Again signs that dramatic improvement is being made here and that is long overdue!!!!!  Or to the fact that many who work in racing do not get a fair deal as regards a fair days pay for a fair days work.  The work riders, those who look after the horses etc are just as important as the trainer and jockey but get little of the glory all too often!  

I loved the quote about Marie Antoinette, Steve!

11 Jan 2009 10:05 AM
TWIN SPIRIES DERBY HAT MAN

MR. STEVE HASKINS,

Sorry to hear of THE PASSING OF YOUR AND HORSE RACINGS' FRIEND ..MR.JOE HIRSCH .

During the summer of 1989Mrs.Janet V.Hirsch, Joe's Mother, passed away

so I sent him a Sympathy card.

A short time later I received a THANK YOU CARD back from Mr. Joe Hirsch.

I have had that card from Hirsch in my KY. DERBY  collection memories album every since .  It always meant a lot to me to receive it, just as much as the memories of the memories of the KY. DERBY WINNERS that Ive seen over the years.

R.I.P.  MR. JOE HIRSCH

11 Jan 2009 3:00 PM
Adrian Beaumont

As a young Englishman visting your tracks in the early 80s's I was in awe of Joe.  I couldn't believe how kind he was to all of us Europeans and think he may have been an anglophile at heart.  He'd meet British horsemen for the first time and know their full careers - which was remarkable in a pre-internet era - and had an incredible memory for names.  He had a genuine love of the game around the world and not just in the States.

Dinners with him were a wonderful - if humbling - experience and you felt as if you had a foot in a bygone era.  I endorse Steve's comments about his generosity as well.

He signed a message for me in his book The Grand Senor and it remains one of my proudest possesions.

It was a privilege to have been his friend.

12 Jan 2009 6:27 AM
Barbara B

I met Joe at a party in Miami in the late 1960's. We quickly became great friends. He was always perfectly tailored and well-turned out. Over the years, we enjoyed many racing parties, charity balls, and dinner in the best restaurants. We double dated with Namath and other assorted sports figures. Joe was kind, attentive, interesting, and very witty. His table, the best one in the place, was always ready for him. They don't make 'em like that any more. He'll be greatly missed by me and all the other "beautiful women" in his life.

12 Jan 2009 7:58 AM
Bill

I have a picture in my mind of Joe Hirsch seated on a bench on Pimlico's backstretch during Preakness week. A picture of sartorial splendor.  He really stood out from the crowd and in so many ways.  A real throwback to a golden age.  He, Charles Hatton, Woody Broun and their kind were really something.  I was in awe of all of them and really miss their eloquence.  God bless them all.

12 Jan 2009 11:36 AM
Billy D.

No offense to you Mr. Haskin however after the last great Trainers of the last century died "Woody Stephens" in my opinion, Joe Hirsch the writer was an Icon to be sure and the last of a bygone era. I'm too young to remember Red Smith or charlie Hatton however Racing suffered a huge loss with Mr. Hirsch. I know Mr. Haskin you are a fine writer and perhaps will ease many of horse racing fans' pain with your columns now and in the future. At least you have a point of reference I suppose if you ever are at a loss for words when writing a column.

12 Jan 2009 8:39 PM
steve alper

After Missouri Journalism School, I worked my dream job, at the Chicago office of DRF in the late 70's and early 80's, seated alongside editor John McEvoy. When Derby Doings was filled, McEvoy would give it to me to edit. Like Bud Delp, when someone dropped a diamond in my lap, I sure as hell knew how to polish it. I'd work extra hard on Hirsch's work because he was "The Ambassador's" (Walter Annenberg) favorite. Any time I would find an error, the correction would get sent out on the company-wide teletype by Kenny Olson. Most writers would cringe when a mistake was made and an editor had to re-write the paragraph. Hirsch would always go out of his way to thank us (the editors) for making him "look good." Believe me, it wasn't easy to send out a correction on a Hirsch piece. That was like telling DaVinci he was mistaken. Joe's at peace now. Probably has a cup of coffee right now, sitting in the press box at Hialeah, waiting for the next set of Calumet 2-year-olds to take to the track for training.

13 Jan 2009 12:53 PM
Monica V

Steve,

That was a lovely and heartfelt tribute to a man who was one of a kind and who was very much a part of this wonderful sport.  

Thank you for the insight into this remarkable man.  It was fascinating and beautiful.

13 Jan 2009 6:54 PM
frank bamford

when joe started writing for the m t,they had some of the best turf writer's ever. people like nelson dunstan,charles hatton, and the great evan shipman. also jimmy cannon.and that was just the n.e.it's no wonder he turned out so good.

13 Jan 2009 9:23 PM
Junie Wise

Great article Steve,but then again your stories are always great!!!!...I remember one Saturday at Hialeah when I first came to Florida back in 1968...I saw Joe in the Clubhouse,I asked him what he thought about one of the Horses Earlie Fires was on..He told me he will go to the lead,then you say"Come on Earlie,don't be late!!!"....He won for fun...and paid about 15 to one...A few weeks later I saw him again..He asked me if I liked Fires in the next race!!!!....I miss his writing.

14 Jan 2009 1:03 PM
Mark Phillips

I bought the racing form one day and Joe hade been given an award for best line "once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso, but only once." I bought a picture of Kelso at Saratoga and went out to find Joe at the track. I found him and explained how much I like his line about Kelso and asked him to sign my photo of Kelso. By this time his disease was quite severe but he insisted on taking myself and my new wife up to the pressbox. He signed my picture and was apologetic about his shaky hand writing. I told him it was a pleasure just to meet him and his signature was just fine. My wife and myself consider Joe to inspiration and often refer to our meeting as part of the magic of Saratoga. I framed the picture of Kelso with Joe's signature and had engrave under the picture "once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso, but only once." Joe Hirch.

11 Feb 2011 10:48 PM

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