Remembering Joe Hirsch
The passing of Joe Hirsch, the greatest turfwriter, dominated my thoughts all day on Friday. With racing no longer holding a prominent place in the national consciousness, it is safe to say that not only is he the most important turfwriter that ever was, but also that which will ever be.
An obituary by AP racing editor Richard Rosenblatt can be found here.
I was blessed with an opportunity to work for Joe during the Saratoga meet of 2001. I was initially hired as a marketing intern for the Daily Racing Form, with an agreement that I would also drive Joe around town when I could. On the second morning of the season Joe finished getting some quotes at the barns and said that next we were going to breakfast. When I told him I had to get to the DRF handicapping seminar at Siro’s, where I was expected to give away hats and sell papers, Joe said to just call the Form and tell them he needed me, that they wouldn’t object. When I did they laughed and told me to do whatever Joe wanted, and so I never made it to another Siro’s seminar that summer.
Instead I became Joe’s full-time, on-call driver, the best gig that I or anyone else who loves this game could ever have. Joe treated me like a colleague, even though I was really a student intern in jackets and ties from Tucson thrift stores. Part of his kindness toward me was that Joe was always naturally generous, especially to aspiring writers; the other part of it, I always suspected, was that he refused to think of himself as someone who needed any help. Joe was hindered considerably by Parkinson’s Disease, which left him hunched over, and with uncontrollable shaking that prolonged every simple action, from typing his column to buttoning his shirt. If we were buddies, though, then the sight of Joe riding shotgun in my grandma’s old Buick was just a guy catching a lift, never an aging legend who needed his driver to take him somewhere.
So I got to be a regular part of Joe’s routine, which generally went like this: out to the barns first thing in the morning to get some quotes; off to breakfast at one of a handful of casual, locally owned spots he favored, like Bruno’s; over to his seasonal apartment on Union Avenue; back to the track, where he’d spend the day writing in the press box while I hung out in the backside picnic area, gambling and drinking a maximum of one beer per afternoon (I was driving the world’s greatest turfwriter, after all, and I took that responsibility seriously); and then, an hour or so after the last race, back to the apartment. Without fail Joe took dinner at one of the town’s finest dining establishments, usually with a few of his countless friends and colleagues, and I would also join him for many of those meals.
I had read and admired many of Joe’s columns, but it wasn’t until spending time with him at Saratoga that I truly understood his stature. It wasn’t just the fact that the press box was named for him, or that he wrote at a secluded, expansive workspace while the rest of the turfwriters toiled shoulder to shoulder at a cramped counter. No, the high regard that Joe was held in was best measured by the way horsemen reacted to a visit from him.
When we pulled up to see Wayne Lukas, the Hall of Fame trainer came down to the car and led Joe by the arm to talk in his office. When we stopped to visit with John Ward, that year’s Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, he insisted that we wait while Donna brought out Snow Dance to stand for us to inspect, as if for a prospective buyer. Nick Zito, too, treated Joe like royalty, and would always remind me to drive safely. No matter who it was and what they were doing, they dropped everything when Joe came by.
Joe introduced me to everyone we crossed paths with, never once mentioning the words “student,” “intern” or “driver.” It was always just, “Say hello to Jimmy Mulvihill.” This way, I would end up chatting with Frank Deford at a Hall of Fame reception, or Marylou Whitney after dinner at the Wishing Well. When someone asked on these sorts of occasions what I did, I said I worked for the Form, which I suppose was kind of, sort of true.
At dinners I mostly shut up and listened to everyone else, especially when racing writers or historians swapped stories. At breakfast, though, Joe and I conversed at length, mostly about horses. We also talked about writing about horses, or really, I asked him questions about writing about horses and he shared his wisdom. Rarely did Joe write something negative about any one person, and he was even more adamant about never disparaging a horse. When everyone was using a variation on the phrase “horse for course” to describe a certain handicap star who repeatedly flopped at Saratoga, only Joe asked if the losses may have been as much about extreme weight assignments, then left it to the reader to decide. It was a more subtle, more probing, and more enlightening angle than the other previews offered.
When I think of what I appreciated most about Joe, though, it was the way he went about his business as much as the final product. By the time I knew him, the daily routine was down to a science, and it felt good to constantly be in the presence of one of the few people who seemed to have life figured out. He worked very hard to produce important writings that historians will reference, I suspect, centuries from now. At the same time, he balanced the hard work with a rich social life, always making time to enjoy the company of the talented and interesting people he befriended. His way seemed even better to me than that of Saratoga’s many wealthy gadabouts, because Joe’s version of the good life was built around dedication to his work.
What will endure, though, is the writing. I have copies of all 24 columns Joe penned in those six weeks (including the two from the Arlington Milion), many of which are still dazzling, and all of which bring back memories of an extraordinary meet. In a season that saw major stakes wins by crowd-pleasers like Point Given and With Anticipation, the most unforgettable on-track moment in my mind was the ridiculous stretch duel between You and Cashier’s Dream in the Adirondack for 2-year-old fillies. I knew it was one of the most thrilling races I’d ever seen, but only a writer with the decades of experience that Joe had could have proclaimed it “so compelling that it will forever be a point of reference and will be described as one of the finest 2-year-old races ever run at Saratoga.” What writer today possesses the authority to make such a pronouncement?
To close, here’s my favorite Joe Hirsch lede from the time I knew him:
Morning poured like a crisp Chablis, the sun high and bright in the heavens, horses dappled and shining as they pranced to the track with joy, while those who cared for them reflected how lucky they are to be in Saratoga on a day of days.
I remember so clearly that perfect morning, the one when we went to see Snow Dance, though really it could describe so many mornings from that glorious summer. My hope is that wherever Joe Hirsch is now, every day is Saratoga on a day of days.