This year's Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships will seem different to many people on the backstretch, press box, and many other parts of Santa Anita Park. Joe Hirsch--who for more than 50 years has worked tirelessly for Daily Racing Form representing the Thoroughbred industry around the world with style and grace--will not be on the scene.
I spoke with Joe recently and his first question to me was, "When are you going out to California?" The follow-up question almost always is, "When can you have dinner?" But there was no dinner invitation this time, so I asked Joe when he was heading to Santa Anita.
"I'm not going," he said. "I'm not up to the travel anymore."
The disappointment in his voice was unmistakable. On Oct. 25, there is no place in the world Joe Hirsch would rather be than Santa Anita for the 20th running of the Breeders' Cup. But his frail physical condition simply won't allow him to do the things he has done so well for the last half-century.
To call Joe the dean of Turf writers is an understatement, because he is so much more than that. His perspective on the sport is unique, having covered more major races than anyone else. His keen memory of the great ones he's seen and covered--both horses and humans--provides him with a treasure trove of stories and events of historical significance. His mind could pound out six columns a week, just like the old days. If only his body would cooperate.
Joe had the uncanny ability to be at the right place at the right time, more than a few steps ahead of most reporters. His contacts within the racing world are almost limitless. When Joe Hirsch is on the phone or standing outside a tack room, everything else becomes secondary.
A handful of critics have said Joe has been too much of a cheerleader for the industry, that he is not critical enough. Unlike many of his associates in the press box, Joe's glass always seems half full. If writing mostly positive stories about a game he loves is a crime, Joe is guilty as charged.
Deservedly he has received about every honor the industry hands out, including an Eclipse Award of Merit in 1992. When told he would be the recipient of the award that year, it is my understanding Joe refused to accept it unless Santa Anita's Robert Strub also was honored. Joe got his way. For an ailing Strub, who died a few months later, accepting the Eclipse Award of Merit was a special moment.
That's the kind of guy Joe Hirsch has been throughout his career. A gentleman. Classy. Unselfish. I'll miss him at the Breeders' Cup, and I know I'm not alone. CLASSIC UPSET?
If anything has been learned from Oak Tree's previous two runnings of the Breeders' Cup, it is that no horse should be counted out of the Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I). Skywalker was a distant fourth choice at 10-1 to Turkoman and Precisionist in the 1986 Classic, but Laffit Pincay Jr. put the son of Relaunch in a contending position right from the start and put the two favorites away with a powerful move on the far turn. Skywalker made it look easy.
Seven years later, fans allowed Arcangues--with the trainer-jockey tandem of Andre Fabre and Jerry Bailey--to go off at astounding odds of 133-1. A three-horse entry trained by Bobby Frankel was favored at 6-5, led by the front-running Bertrando.
In the end, Arcangues did all the running, charging from seventh with a quarter-mile to run to win going away by two lengths. It was the son of Sagace's first race on dirt.
Both Skywalker and Arcangues raced the year following their Classic triumphs, but neither won another grade I race. But both were at their best when it counted the most.