Joe Hirsch. Here is a man.
Tall and erect, ramrod straight with dark hair and sun glasses sporting stylish ebony lenses that contrasted starkly with a cream-colored suit that was free from wrinkles, in his prime, Hirsch looked like he just stepped off the pages of GQ.
A man with purpose and presence, Hirsch was a pillar among his peers, a writer whose prose was rife with compliments and whose infrequent criticisms were enveloped in velvet.
He mingled with aristocracy and celebrities, paling around with Joe Namath when Broadway Joe was his generation’s sporting rage more than 30 years ago.
Hirsch retired this month after nearly a half a century of covering horse racing for the Daily Racing Form. Despite being debilitated from Parkinson’s Disease for 15 years, Joe soldiered on until, at age 75, he called it a career. "I just can’t do it any more," he said succinctly in his farewell column. "The travel’s just gotten to be too much," he told Bill Christine of the Los Angeles Times. "If you can’t hit the road in this game, there’s no way to keep up."
Near the end, it hurt to watch Joe exercise infinite patience trying to hook an arm of his glasses behind his ears. Eating soup was another matter altogether. But Joe never elicited sympathy. He kept his sense of humor and never lowered his standards. I never saw Joe in anything but a suit and tie, even when he conducted interviews on the backstretch, where manure dots the landscape like so many foul-smelling land mines.
Those who knew Hirsch only by his writing were none the wiser of his illness, because his tales of the turf exhibited quality and consistency for 50 years. Only a keen observer would notice that his columns diminished in content in the latter stages of his career. But they read as well as ever. That is the marvel of his constitution.
About 12 years ago, for the first time in my adult life, I was out of work. My brother’s business had gone belly-up and after spending 10 years with him selling sporting goods and running a warehouse, I was pounding the pavement. My income stopped but not my bills. This was a new and alarming experience. There was no work in any field I explored, even racing, where I had plied my trade for years before moving West. Desperate, I exhausted my networking contacts, even writing a letter accompanied by a resume to Joe Hirsch, c/o the Daily Racing Form at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Florida.
I hadn’t seen Hirsch or spoken to him in more than 20 years, not since we shared press boxes on the New Jersey racing circuit: 50 days each at Garden State Park, Monmouth Park and Atlantic City Racecourse. It was a glorious time and Joe carried himself regally in those days. The Garden State press box was composed of two sections, one housing the Racing Form crew, the other accommodating motley ink-stained wretches from area publications.
When one of the wretches grew too rowdy or rooted too loudly for a steed he had backed at the mutuel windows, Joe would rise slowly from his seat, stoop from the shoulders, stick his head through a window-sized archway opening from his side of the press box, hold an index finger to his lips and utter softly, "Shhhhhhh!"
The silence was instant. Joe commanded respect. Always has. Always will.
Fast forward to 1992. Forlornly watching an obscure show on television at 9:30 one night, feeling sorry for myself and wondering where my next mortgage payment was coming from, the phone rang. To my answer of "hello" came three resonant words I’ll never forget:
"Eddie? Joe Hirsch."
I don’t recall my immediate emotion, but flabbergasted seems appropriate.
Remember, Joe and I hadn’t been in contact with one another in over two decades. He didn’t know if I was a drug addict, had a physical disability, or what. And he didn’t care. At 30 minutes past midnight on the East Coast where he was calling from, after a long day at the races, Hirsch recognized a cohort in trouble and responded with an offer to help. He took the time to care.
That’s what I’ll remember most.
Joe Hirsch. Here is a man.
THE HOMESTRETCH: Important news from the December Thoroughbred Owners of California meeting included the following: "Legislative consultant Rod Blonien said AB 900, the bill that would raise takeout on exotic wagers to help defray the high cost of workers’ compensation, could come up no later than early January." The Gaming Revenue Act of 2004, an initiative that would allocate a percentage of slot machine revenues to the state government, is expected to be placed on the November 2004, Blonien reported, adding, "much of that percentage would benefit neighborhood police and firefighters and county offices of education to provide services for abused and neglected children and children in foster care. The initiative would require Native American tribes to pay 25 percent of their net win for these purposes in order for the tribes to maintain their monopoly on gaming. If the tribes choose not to contribute the 25 percent, they would lose their gaming exclusivity and 30,000 slot machines would be placed at five race tracks and 11 card clubs. If the tribes give up their monopoly on gaming, the tracks that would receive slot machines are Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Golden Gate, Bay Meadows and Los Alamitos. All race tracks, including those without machines, would benefit from slots revenue that would go to purses-17.75 percent to purses and 0.75 percent to the California-bred incentive awards. The percentages are thus far the highest allocation of slots revenue to horsemen in the country." . . . Gary Stevens on why he took off for six weeks following the Breeders’ Cup on Oct. 25: "It’s too long a year not to take some time off."