Dean of turf writers dies

NEW YORK — Joe Hirsch chronicled the world of Thoroughbred racing for the Daily Racing Form for more than a half-century. He'd travel to tracks around the country, showing up in the mornings to interview trainers, jockeys, breeders, owners and anyone else willing to share their thoughts about the sport he loved so much.

There wasn't a person who wouldn't talk to the dean of American turf writers, either. But the man known for his deliberate gait, dark sunglasses and helpful hints was much more than a racing writer.

"He was a global ambassador for the sport, a mentor to two generations of journalists, and probably the most universally respected figure in the world of horse racing," Daily Racing Form publisher Steve Crist said.

Hirsch, who had Parkinson's disease for 20 years and broke his hip in a fall last spring, died Friday at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center. He was 80.

"He had a giant heart and was a friend to all," said Breeders' Cup publicist and longtime friend Jim Gluckson. "In the second part of the 20th century, he was the most important writer in Thoroughbred racing history. He chronicled the game on an almost daily basis."

Hirsch, whose career spanned 55 years, reported on the road to the Kentucky Derby in his "Derby Doings" column, a detailed rundown of Derby contenders as the horses competed in prep races in Kentucky, Florida, California and New York.

Hirsch, who retired in 2003, also was known for helping new racing writers learn the sport and became the first president of the National Turf Writers Association in 1959. He was the rare journalist who had the respect of the racing establishment as well as fellow journalists and the public.

"He was a special guy. I was always flattered whenever he wrote an article about me and quoted me because he always made me sound a lot better in print," Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said. "He'll be missed by me, and more importantly, by horse racing."

When the new press box at Churchill Downs was completed in 2005, it was named the Joe Hirsch Media Center. The Saratoga press box was named in his honor in 1999. Also, the New York Racing Association renamed one of its top grass stakes the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational.

Nick Nicholson, president of Keeneland, said he will miss Hirsch's company — and storytelling.

"Joe devoted his entire life in the tireless effort to chronicle the sport, traveling throughout the world and making the racetrack with the next major event his temporary home," Nicholson said. "No one has ever done it better — he was so good he made it look easy."

James E. Bassett III, former Keeneland chairman of the board, called Hirsch "racing's national journalist ... truly one of racing's treasures."

Among Hirsch's more memorable lines was from a story he wrote on five-time Horse of the Year Kelso. It read: "Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso ... but only once."

"Let us borrow Joe's brilliant phrase and proclaim today that once upon a time, there was a special journalist and man named Joe Hirsch but only once," Churchill Downs president Steve Sexton said.