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There was Joe Hirsch ... and the rest of us ...

Joe_hirsch It was 1979, I was a young sports editor of the Milwaukee Journal and I decided my sports section needed to reach further, to be national as well as local.

So I assigned myself to cover the Kentucky Derby.

Yes, I know. Tough job.

I showed up at midweek before the race, knowing nothing and nobody. I did know that horses trained early and you needed to be at the barns in the wee hours.

So there I was, in the semi-dark, a duck totally out of water, watching the veteran horse racing writers and others who at least had a semi-clue scurry around from one barn to another. Even if I had known whom to ask, I wouldn't have known what.

As I stood alone in my ignorance and helplessness, I felt a tug on my elbow and turned to see this man, bundled up against the cold, kind of big eyebrows, looking at me and smiling. He introduced himself, told me he knew I was probably a little lost back here and that I should just follow him and he would help me. 

I followed him to the barn of trainer Buddy Delp, whose horse was named Spectacular Bid. My new friend introduced me to Delp, just as if we had been long-lost friends, told Delp that it was important for horse racing to have a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal there to cover the race, and encouraged Delp to give me some time.

I left 20 minutes later with outrageous quotes from a Damon Runyon character who almost guaranteed his horse's victory. And, of course, when Spectacular Bid did, indeed, win, there were probably some Milwaukee readers who actually thought there was a member of their local sports staff who knew horse racing, even though there isn't even any parimutuel betting in the entire state of Wisconsin.

I never forgot that day, or that guardian angel.

His name was Joe Hirsch, he wrote for the Daily Racing Form for more than 50 years, and in that time, he was the sport's best ambassador.

Hirsch died Friday morning, at age 80. And that loss, while felt all over the country by people in the sport, will also be felt this year in the days leading up to the May 2 Kentucky Derby, when a young writer making his or her first venture into the cradle of the sport will have to go it alone.

-- Bill Dwyre

Photo: Joe Hirsch, in an undated picture. Credit: Daily Racing Form /Associated Press

   

 
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