It was the night before the 1985 Kentucky Derby (gr. I), and I had been invited to dinner at Hasenour’s in downtown Louisville, Ky., by Joe Hirsch. I had been working for Daily Racing Form for a year but had met Joe for the first time just a few weeks earlier at another of his favorite dining spots, Stanley Demos’ Coach House in Lexington.
Since the first Triple Crown prep in Florida months earlier, Joe had been working seven days a week chronicling the movement of every serious (and not so serious) Derby hopeful in his well-known and highly-read column, “Derby Doings.” Now, seated beside DRF publisher Mike “Mickey” Sandler, the long run had caught up with Joe. As his invited guests chatted while waiting for their entrees, Joe had his head down and was napping.
A few minutes later the food arrived, and the young waiter promptly dumped Joe’s linguini and clam sauce in the nattily-attired lap of the dean of American Turf writers. Without missing a beat, Joe raised his head, looked at the terrified waiter, and said, “The sauce is a little heavy tonight.”
It was vintage Joe Hirsch, a man who was a true foodie and an enormously gifted writer, and who possessed a unique sense of humor.
Because DRF staffer Mike Marten was unable to travel from California that year, I was chosen to join the team working Derby week at Churchill Downs, and would continue in that role until I left the paper six years later. As he was to many other journalists, Joe was a mentor, making this writer feel comfortable and at ease while in the presence of the man whose words had first enraptured him as a 9-year-old horse lover.
During Derby week 1986, trainer Phil Gleaves worked Wise Times a mile and an eighth. I knew that had to be unusual, so I researched the question. As he was writing his column later that day, I waited for an opening and proclaimed to Joe: “Interesting work for Wise Times; no one has worked that distance prior to the Derby since Affirmed.”
“Yes, I know,” Joe said. “Wrote that about four paragraphs ago.”
There is a certain irony in the fact Joe died at a time when so many newspapers have discontinued the coverage of racing and have either fired or reassigned their racing writers. Joe saw all that was good about the industry. He understood the horse was bred to run, and he loved the stories of the men and women that owned, trained, rode, groomed, and exercised these majestic animals.
Joe was the epitome of class, strolling the backside in his tradmark dark sunglasses and wearing a sport coat and tie. He was famous for using a tiny notebook and writing very little in it. He would listen to a trainer for 15 minutes, jot down three or four words, and later pound out a column with verbatim quotes and accurate workout times. The notebook that did have a lot written in it was Joe’s compilation of phone numbers. Every trainer was happy to be called to his stable office when Joe was on the line.
Racing writers are known for something in addition to their prose, and that is their propensity for wagering; press boxes tend to have a high per-capita handle. Joe rarely wagered, so when he strolled to the window one day at Keeneland, everyone in the press box followed him.
Joe bet his usual $2, and the first-time starter naturally won.
Joe Hirsch was always a winner, and those who learned from him took many important lessons, about horses and about life, with them.
Some sports honor writers and broadcasters as members of their hall of fame. Thoroughbred racing does not.
This might be a good time to re-examine that policy.