Sorry, folks, this one’s for me. If you hang around I thank you in advance for indulging my sentimentality, but the events of Aug. 1 have inspired me, no, make that compelled me, to express my intense feelings of gratitude to my wife and daughter, and all my friends and family who shared in the most special and memorable day of my career.
But mostly this is for Joan, my beautiful wife of 36 years (come Sept. 28) for her love and support and constant inspiration. And the pride she and my daughter Mandy felt as I was honored at the National Museum of Racing on Monday is what makes it all worthwhile and unforgettable. Without them I wouldn’t be here…or anywhere for that matter.
It was racing that brought Joan and me together back in the late ‘70s when she worked for Photocommunications, the firm that handled the New York Racing Association’s public relations and supplied them with the vast majority of their photos. Joan was a writer and photographer who was weaned during her first years on horses like Seattle Slew, Forego, and Affirmed and Alydar. She would call me in the DRF library for reasons I honestly can’t remember. I think they were about work and picking my brain, but couldn’t swear to it. In any event we talked, and she would prolong the conversations by letting me know she was looking to leave Photocommunications for a better position.
We wound up talking for months, first at work and then at home, sometimes for as long as four hours. I remember being in England and couldn’t wait to get back home to talk to Joan. I finally decided it was time to meet, which was an extremely bold step for me, having grown up with such a huge inferiority complex I would pull a Ralph Kramden “hamanahamana” whenever I feebly attempted to talk to a girl. To show how far apart our worlds had been in our early twenties, I was at Saratoga to see Arts and Letters win the Travers in 1969 the same day Joan was about 65 miles down the New York Thruway in Woodstock..
In preparation for our long overdue meeting, I contacted our head of advertising and got several references to give her, mostly as a crutch in order to have something to talk about. So, we decided to meet outside her office building on Madison Avenue for lunch, and needing to give this my very best shot I wore a tie and three-piece suit even though the temperature was somewhere in the vicinity of 95 degrees. It didn’t matter. I needed every advantage I could get to assure she would not cringe in disgust or at the very least set a track record in eating lunch -- “Oh, I just remembered, I have all this work I have to finish in the next half hour. Goodbye and good luck, and, oh, by the way, I’m changing my phone number.”
So, I waited outside her building, and when she came out and I realized it was her, with that long blonde hair flowing in the hot summer breeze, let’s just say I was the equivalent of a $5,000 claimer facing a grade I champion. As I told Jack, my friend and driving companion (to work) the following day, “Forget it. I’m totally outclassed.”
But we went to lunch, and despite having talked for months and learning all about each other, I no longer was a faceless voice on the telephone. I was me and not happy about that one bit. I quickly needed to come up with a sharp opening line, but Ralph Kramden had a hold of my tongue, complete with quivering jaw and a sole vocabulary of “hamanahamana.” We had so much in common on the phone and talked so openly, but now it was me and this gorgeous lady and I no longer knew her. But unfortunately I knew myself. I somehow was able to fight Ralph off and managed to actually speak in a semi intelligent manner: “So, how many floors in your apartment building?” Oh, my God, I was more pathetic than I thought. Did I actually say that?
Behind Joan’s beautiful smile was a “Who the heck cares? This loser is the cool guy I’ve been talking to for so many months, who I have shared intimate secrets with?”
I tried to save one last shred of dignity by giving her the names and phone numbers our advertising manager had written down for me. Actually, come to think of it, I believe she asked for it in order to steer me off the embarrassing course I had taken -- “So, where’s the list?” Ouch.
So, the phone romance was over. I had been exposed. Or so I thought. She actually called me again at work and I was able to crawl back into hiding, once again Mr. Cool with the sharp sense of humor; a voice of compassion and someone who was easy to talk to. But to my utter shock, she actually seemed interested. I figured with her having just hit the “30” furlong pole, she was, in her mind, getting a bit too far from the starting gate and her clock was ticking, feeling it’s better to catch a guppy than wait around for a marlin.
Believe it or not, she wanted to further our relationship and it was me who was reluctant. I use reluctant as a substitute for scared, gutless, and insecure. I even sank so low as to tell her my budding writing career as American representative for a British magazine took precedence over anything else, especially romantic involvement. Every word of that was a lie. That was my inferiority complex talking. But she suggested I read the book “The Thorn Birds,” and that changed my life completely around and gave me the courage to follow the old adage, “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” I knew I couldn't live with myself if I blew this opportunity.
Well, it’s 38 years later and I’m still in love. Joan went on to work as public relations coordinator for NYRA for three years, meaning three glorious summers in Saratoga, where I finally proposed, although it may have been the other way around. We broke the news to her entire family at the Wishing Well restaurant that same night. The following night we were having dinner with her parents when her mother casually asked her in front of me, "So Joanie, are you sure you're doing the right thing?" Uh, hello.
During her stay with NYRA Joan wrote the first ever feature on a young apprentice named Richard Migliore, she coordinated and put together the exhibit “That Belmont Look” at the New York Historical Society, and arranged for the city of Saratoga to proclaim “Affirmed Day” in 1979, with banners and posters all over town. She also helped bring the American-trained Grand National Steeplechase winner Ben Nevis to Saratoga in 1980, where he was brought to the lawn of the Reading Room adjacent to the track. And in perhaps her greatest triumph (and mine), Joe Hirsch kept asking her out on a date until she informed him she was seeing one of his colleagues, Steve Haskin, to which his only response was, “Good man.” Here I was competing with the man who shared a New York City bachelor pad with Joe Namath. My idea of a date was visiting my mother in Brooklyn and then going shopping at Kings Plaza mall. Joe's idea of a date was Studio 54 and dining at New York's finest restaurants.
After Joan moved to Queens, we spent two fun years in our cozy apartment, complete with carboard furniture in the bedroom. We then moved to New Jersey when Joan got a job as head of communications for Robert Brennan’s International Thoroughbred Breeders and was the go-to person regarding ITB’s purchase of Garden State Park.
We have shared many adventures over the years, traveling to places like France on our honeymoon, Dubai, Uruguay, England, and Ireland, and all over America. We brought a beautiful and amazing daughter into the world, and still are best friends. Everything I have in my life is because of her. In 1997, I was assigned to cover the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe for DRF, giving us an opportunity to have a second honeymoon and expose Mandy to the wonders of Paris. We even stayed in the same little boutique hotel we stayed at 17 years earlier.
Together we have painted our own version of the Picture of Dorian Gray. I keep aging as Joan keeps getting younger.
Because of her inspiration I learned to believe in myself and somehow made it into the Hall of Fame, a far cry from the nerdy librarian who fell in love with a princess.
To have Joan and Mandy share in this remarkable moment and seeing the look of pride on their faces is what made this such a special occasion.
So, this is just my way of saying thank you for everything that I am and everything I will ever be. The song I have heard for the past 38 years is as beautiful as the song of the Thorn Bird.
As author Colleen McCullough described it: “It outsings the Lark and the Nightingale…and the whole world stills to listen, and God in his heaven smiles.”
In front of the Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor
Sharing this momentous occasion with family and friends