"There has been no more respected figure in horse racing over the last 50 years than Joe Hirsch…" said Alex Waldrop, NTRA President and CEO.
“He was a kind man, a friend to everyone... truly one of racing’s giants,” said Joe Aulisi, Director of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
“He was a great man and a racing journalist the likes of which we will never see or read again…” said Charlie Hayward, NYRA President & CEO, former President & CEO of Daily Racing Form.
“Joe was a great ambassador for our sport. He had the best interests of horse racing at heart at all times…” said Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of The Jockey Club.
“He was a role model and mentor to so many...set a high standard of excellence…we are honored to be the recipient of his guidance, generosity and leadership,” said Tom Law, President of the National Turf Writers Association.
Despite his gift for story and language, it is unlikely that you ever would have read a Joe Hirsch blog. Snarky attitude never was one of his attributes.
Hard reporting wouldn’t come until later on, with the “chipmunks,” writers and reporters such as Stan Isaacs, Dick Young, Larry Merchant and a handful of others.
But don’t confuse Joe Hirsch with an apologist. When he saw something he didn’t like, he wrote about it. His was an unquestioned voice of authority.
Following tributes that appeared almost instantly the day Joe died came recollections of what he had written, or said: “Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso, but only once.” That Racing Form lead became the stuff of racetrack lore.
There was the story about a reporter who prior to a big race lamented to Joe, “it’s a shame about the sloppy track…” His quip “it was a shame about Marie Antoinette” was quintessential Joe Hirsch.
And there was the time when a young Newsday reporter was concerned about how he would cover news emanating from a then jam-packed four weeks of racing at Saratoga:
“It’s not the 24 days you have to worry about, it’s the 24 nights,” he counseled.
Joe often made a personal impact on the lives of his fellow turf writers, too.
My wife and I were married on January 12, 1969, the day the old American Football League gained parity with the older, established NFL when an upstart quarterback “guaranteed” a victory by his Jets over the mighty Colts.
Post time for the church wedding was 5 p.m. Of the 150 invited guests, over one hundred came disguised as empty pews. Father Anthony Praetano didn’t enter Immaculate Conception Monastery until approximately 5:10. Just couldn’t tear himself away from the car radio.
Eventually this story would be documented in an Andy Beyer Super Bowl column and later in Readers’ Digest, coincidentally a property of the Walter Annenberg media empire that also owned the Racing Form.
Twenty years later, Super Bowl XXIII was in Miami, as was Joe Hirsch, covering the Gulfstream meet. Toni and I decided to celebrate our 20th by watching the Joe Montana-led 49ers vs. the Boomer Esiason-led Cincinnati Bengals.
The Niners won; the Bengals covered.
Hirsch’s Manhattan roommate of 11 years also happened to be the same upstart quarterback who engineered the most significant upset in professional football history.
Hirsch initially was doing a favor to Sonny Werblin, who was Johnny Carson’s theatrical agent, a Broadway producer, master of Elberon Farms and owner of the New York Jets who had invested a then ungodly sum of $400,000 in a quarterback from the University of Alabama via Beaver Falls, Pa.
On the Friday of Super Bowl weekend, Toni and I, along with race-caller Tom Durkin and his friend, went to the races. The feature was split divisions of the Joe Namath Handicap for fillies and mares on the turf.
By mid-afternoon, Hirsch was in the trackside restaurant presumably to say hello but really to lead us to the box area where Namath, then a spokesman for Gulfstream Park, awaited.
Namath walked over, Hirsch introduced us, Namath gave my wife a kiss, pretty much ignored me and presented her with an autographed football that read:
“Toni, sorry I missed your wedding but I had to make good on a guarantee.”
As post time approached, Hirsch escorted us to the paddock where he enlisted track photographer Jim Raftery to take a picture of the anniversary couple with Joe Willie Namath.
That will always be Joe Hirsch to us.
Professionally, Joe would sometimes throw me a storyline and once helped me riddle a personal dilemma regarding my 1988 Horse of the Year ballot.
Ferdinand was favored to win the honor despite his somewhat pedestrian 4-for-11 record. The certain-to-be turf champion, Theatrical, had dominated his division, the winner of six Grade 1 events.
“Horse of the Year can be anything,” Hirsch advised. So I voted for Theatrical. Ferdinand won the title, but my conscience was clear.
Now Hirsch, like the storied thoroughbred nurseries he enjoyed writing about--the Greentrees, Calumets, and all the rest that bred to race, not sell, are gone. As is much of the romance.
Perhaps it’s better that Joe isn’t around to witness the virtual disappearance (pun intended) of mainstream turf writing as modern thoroughbred racing continues to devolve more into the realm of game than sport.
Maybe now’s time has come for the sport to acknowledge not only his legacy, but those of Joe Palmer, Red Smith, Audax Minor and countless others, who elevated the sport with the kind of word pictures that make race horses come alive on the printed page, providing a lasting presence for a sport that was first introduced on the Plains of Hempstead nearly four hundred years ago.
As a founder and first president of the National Turf Writers Assn, Joe Hirsch was a trail blazer. Perhaps he can be again.
Correcting an oversight that has existed for too long, the sport needs to construct, in his memory, the Joe Hirsch Turf Writers’ wing of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.