At about 4:30 in the afternoon, the skies opened up, turning the Monmouth Park surface into a sea of slop. As a reporter covering my first race, I was crushed. I had just visited the barns of all the starters in the 1986 Haskell Invitational Handicap (gr. I), and had gotten to know the horses and their grooms up close and personal. Now, the race was a mess.
Dejected, I made my way up to the press box, and the first person I saw was Joe Hirsch, who was sitting at the Daily Racing Form
desk overlooking the track. The perfect shoulder to cry on, I thought. Joe would understand my disappointment. I walked over to him and said, "Hi Joe, it's a shame about the track."
Joe slowly turned toward me, looked up, and without hesitation, said, "Steve, it was a shame about Marie Antoinette."
Wow, did that throw me back on my heels and put everything in proper perspective. Yes, a sloppy track at Monmouth is indeed not quite as tragic as losing one's head on the guillotine. Where Joe came up with that one I have no idea, but it was just the first of many profound and comforting comments from the most amazing and unique individual I have ever met.
I'll never forget the day in late winter of 1994. I was sitting at my desk at the Daily Racing Form
in Hightstown, N.J., when our editor at the time, George Bernet, called me into his office. He said he had just received a call from Joe Hirsch, who was about to start his 38th year writing "Derby Doings," the feature he founded back in 1956 that had helped catapult him from beat reporter to living legend. This was his signature, his single most identifiable piece of writing. Joe, in 1994, was beginning to suffer the effects of Parkinson's disease and other maladies. He called George and delivered the bombshell. "Give 'Derby Doings' to Steve," he said.
I was flabbergasted, shocked, and, most of all, honored. This was Lou Gehrig telling Yankees manager Joe McCarthy to bench him and put the kid in after a record 2,130 consecutive games.
For the next nine years, I never once looked at Joe without being in awe of him. Although his body withered and became more fragile with each passing year, his mind remained as fertile as ever. How he put out a column every day, while traveling to places like California and Dubai, was nothing short of amazing. Anytime someone asked Joe how he was doing, he'd always answer, "Couldn't be better." And this was after taking 20 minutes to put on one of his cuff links.
He took me and my DRF colleague, Ed Fountaine, under his wing and always shared his wisdom, wit, and knowledge willingly. Between us, we have so many Joe Hirsch stories, it would take volumes to put them all in print. Our dinners with Joe were an unforgettable experience. Besides horses and beautiful women, Joe loved good food. When you went out with him you were treated like royalty. There wasn't a restaurant owner or maitre d' who didn't welcome him with open arms. You could walk into Joe's Stone Crab in South Miami Beach, with a two-hour wait, and wouldn't even break stride as you were led to the best table in the place. But this kind of respect was something Joe commanded, not demanded.
Joe exists on a different plane than other people, though he'd never admit it. Whether he was fraternizing with Sonny and Marylou Whitney or sharing a banana with the jock's room attendant at Monmouth, Joe made everyone he met feel equally as comfortable in his presence.
The void of not having Joe Hirsch's "At the Post" column grace the pages of the Daily Racing Form
any longer is so vast it is impossible to even imagine it.
When it comes to Joe, I have barely scratched the surface. But I'll close by saying, in terms he would appreciate: Joe, your life has been one spectacular feast, always surrounded by loved ones. Now that the main course is down to a final few bites, make sure you heed your own words and "save room for dessert."Steve Haskin is The Blood-Horse's senior correspondent.