Derby Doings

Most last-minute Kentucky Derby (gr. I) columns go something like this: Since (fill in the year), no horse that (fill in the qualifier) has won the Derby. One doesn't have to go back very far to remember there are no sure things in the Derby; just recall last year's win by a New York-bred gelding.

This year, however, there is one absolute. For the first time since 1956, the Kentucky Derby will be run without the presence of Joe Hirsch.

Racing's legendary columnist put away his pen and tiny note pad last year, the result of Parkinson's disease's vice-like grip on his body. Too weak to travel, Hirsch will watch the Derby from his apartment on Manhattan's East Side rather than from Churchill Downs.

"I never went to the doctor when I was working," Hirsch lamented less than two weeks before this year's Derby. "I guess I'm making up for that now."

When asked what the doctors tell him, Hirsch's wit remains bone-dry. After a slight pause for effect, he said, "Come again."

His informative "Derby Doings" column, which he filed for the Daily Racing Form from 1956 to 1994, was the lifeblood for Derby junkies like myself. In those pre-Internet, pre-TVG days, Hirsch's front-page updates on all of the contenders were the only place for Derby information. In my youth, I remember waiting outside Wheeler's Pharmacy in Lexington for the bundle of Forms to arrive to read who was hot, and who was hotter.

A few years later, I had the honor and privilege to join Hirsch's movable feast. As part of a large contingent heading to a restaurant after a day of racing at Gulfstream Park, I was told we were going to Christine Lee's, a Chinese restaurant at the old Thunderbird Motel on Collins Avenue. "Get the steak," was Joe's recommendation. Steak at a Chinese restaurant? I ordered the steak, and as always, Joe was right.

Times change. Joe's favorite Louisville eatery, Hasenours, has long since closed. Joe's roost in the press box is gone, too, as construction crews reduced it to rubble last fall in their renovation of Churchill Downs. On the upside, the new media center that will open in 2005 will be named in Joe's honor. It will join the press box at Saratoga Race Course as being named for the dean of American Turf writers.

Hirsch, who prowled the backstretch like no other, was slowed in recent years. But if anything, respect for him grew. As a gaggle of reporters would huddle around a trainer on any given Derby-week morning, there would be Hirsch, painstakingly making his way slowly through the barn area. He would enter a trainer's barn, scan the scene, and find a seat. More often than not, the trainer would stop the conversation, part his way through the reporters, and go sit with Joe.

Despite his illness, Joe's mind remains tack-sharp. When asked of his favorite Derby stories, he didn't hesitate.

"The story I liked best was that of a Texas surgeon who had a horse in the Derby years ago," Hirsch said. "I called his office and the nurse said he was busy--in surgery. She said, 'Hold on.' Well, he came on the phone and talked for half an hour. His horse was a 50-1 shot, but he was very enthusiastic about his horses. I always wondered what happened to the patient."

Another of his other memorable Derby characters is a trainer who brought a maiden to Kentucky from California and trained the horse behind a sulky at the Red Mile harness track in Lexington. The stewards declined to let the horse start in the Derby.

Another was "One Eyed Tom, who was blind in one eye," Hirsch recalled. "He was a first-time starter and the trainer agreed to have him make a trial start from the gate before the stewards. The horse left the gate and made a sharp left-hand turn. They wouldn't let him start, saying he would wipe out half the field. He was trained by a full-blooded Indian. He had a hell of a time at the Derby and slept on a blanket on the ground."

Hirsch continues to follow the racing scene, and like others, sees this year's renewal as wide open. He paused in the conversation, and said, "But once you do some digging, there's always a good story. I promise you that. The Derby is rich in material."

And racing remains a richer world thanks to Joe Hirsch.

EVAN I. HAMMONDS is managing editor of The Blood-Horse.