In the midst of the discussion over what constitutes journalism and the worthiness, or lack thereof, of blogs, comes news of the passing of Joe Hirsch, the Daily Racing Form columnist who was called the dean of American turf writers.
There never was, and never will be, anyone who covered horse racing quite like Joe Hirsch, who was a staunch advocate and viewed it as deserving of the same kind of coverage as other, more mainstream sports. Tall, with jet black hair and dark glasses, always impeccably turned out, he had the respect of everyone in the industry, from owners to jockeys and trainers, and from other writers as well, especially those he helped along the way.
"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," said Steve Crist, DRF's publisher.
Talking with Dave Grening of DRF yesterday reminded me of what Joe would do when he saw someone new on the beat: He would give them a copy of the Revised Veterinary Glossary for Turf Writers. Dave's was dated March, 1980. (I refuse to tell you when mine was dated.)
If you needed a phone number, he would open his little black book and give you it. If you needed access to an owner, he would take you over, and introduce you. If you couldn't pin down the exact date of an event, Joe would remember for you. He did this because he wanted horse racing to have a prominent position in the sports pages, whether it was the New York Daily News or the Miami News or the Bergen Record.
Richard Migliore said yesterday that when Joe called and wanted to interview you, it was so special and humbling that he'd pick you as a topic. As a turf writer, you felt the same way when Joe would ask you to join him and several others at a restaurant for dinner during the Triple Crown or at the Breeders' Cup or Saratoga. He wanted everything to be first class; if things were not to his liking, he would quietly have them corrected. I remember once, at the Wishing Well in Saratoga one August, a plate of local tomatoes was brought to the table. It must have been by someone who did not know who Joe was, as some of them were quite green around the edges. He looked at them, looked up and simply said, "Bring us some good tomatoes" and within moments, the ripest, reddest beefsteak tomatoes I have ever experienced appeared in front of us.
He may have chronicled horse racing for 50 years, but I think his real legacy was all the turf writers he started on their way. There are but a handful left, now, and only a few of those writing for the internet had the privilege of being mentored by Joe. And that is something to mourn.