There are several human-interest stories swirling around the 135th edition of the Run for the Roses May 2, lending extra color to the world’s most famous horse race.
There is Tom McCarthy, the 75-year-old retired principal whose one-horse stable will be represented in the race. There’s diet guru Jenny Craig getting to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) with Chocolate Candy, whose dam was a birthday present given by Jenny to her husband, Sid, years ago. Sid passed away last year, making Jenny’s trip to Louisville a poignant one.
And then there is the story of Papa Clem, named for one of the architects of California Thoroughbred racing, Clement Hirsch, by his son Bo. The elder Hirsch died in 2000, but not before enjoying years of friendship with Hollywood stars such as Desi Arnez and Jimmy Durante and establishing the non-profit Oak Tree Racing Association and becoming a founding director of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. You know you accomplished something special when a circuit names not one, but two grade I races after you.
Clement Hirsch raced Magical Maiden to victories in grade I events the Las Virgenes Stakes and the Hollywood Starlet. A month before he died, Magical Maiden gave birth to a daughter of Belong to Me that was eventually named Miss Houdini. Bo Hirsch bought five horses from his father’s estate, including Miss Houdini. The early reviews were not entirely favorable.
“My bloodstock agent, Kathy Berkey, talked me into buying her,” said Bo Hirsch. “The other runners Magical Maiden had had really didn’t do anything, but Kathy insisted this one was different, so I took a shot and bought her.
“When we were getting her ready for the races I brought (trainer) Warren Stute out to look at her. He looked at me and said, ‘I hope you didn’t pay too much for this filly.’ I figured I’d already gone broke in the game, and I was just getting started. She wasn’t much to look at, but boy, could she run.”
Miss Houdini won the Del Mar Debutante in 2002. Eventually, Hirsch retired her and bred her to Smart Strike, again on Berkey’s recommendation, before the stallion became a leading sire. The result is Papa Clem.
“The people who broke him were telling me good things about him,” Hirsch said. “And Smart Strike was becoming a leading sire, so I figured this was my best shot to name something after my father. And Papa Clem was what the grandkids called him.”
And so Papa Clem carries that history into the Derby, fresh off a huge victory in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II). He’s been a consistent sort, finishing second to Friesan Fire in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) and runner-up to Pioneerof the Nile in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) earlier this season.
"This is very exciting,” said Bo Hirsch. “I’ve never been through anything like this in my life. It’s a lot of fun not only for me, but my family and friends are calling every day and are excited about going to Louisville. And the hat business around Los Angeles is doing very well with us.”
The racing business should also do well if a feel-good story like Papa Clem emerges from Churchill Downs come Derby Day.