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.