When the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby is broadcast May 5 on NBC, you can lay a pretty sure bet that there will be pre-race feature stories showing the Derby hopefuls working out in the pre-dawn mist, flecks of light peeking through the darkness.
You can thank Maximilian Justice Hirsch for that.
Hirsch bore an outsized Texas name and went on to an outsized career as a racehorse trainer.
He was born to German-Jewish parents in Fredericksburg, Texas in 1880, and worked on a ranch as a boy. When he was 12, he hopped a freight train along with a bunch of racehorses. He was a jockey first, then a trainer by age 17.
Hirsch trained for the 1920s gambler Arnold Rothstein, and was briefly portrayed on the current HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” in a scene based upon a real moment. On July 4, 1921, he was training a horse named Sidereal who been underperforming, but who, he told Rothstein, he now felt was ready to win. Rothstein had agents bet with the track’s bookies, and he won $770,000. “I had a trunk full after that race,” Hirsch told The New York Times in 1956.
In 1928, Hirsch was hailed as a pioneer who had ended “hot-house” horse training. Indoor tracks had become popular in the 1910s, and horsemen kept their horses inside and their jockeys comfortable by training indoors all winter long. But, wrote Henry King in the New York Sun, Hirsch never believed in pampering horses, and sent them out in all weather, first thing in the morning. His method worked; his horses were hardier and readier to race than their opponents.
“And each year,” wrote King, “the number of converts to the Hirsch system increased until now nearly all of the alert and successful horsemen have their charges outdoors every morning.”
Hirsch’s first Kentucky Derby was an exciting race: Bold Venture was a long shot, and he had a crowded start out of the gate at Churchill Downs. Jockey Ira Hanford’s leg was in a bandage to support a wrenched knee, and Hirsch’s wife was making a rare appearance at the Derby. The horse wound up in the winner’s circle. “I told you boys I would bring good luck to daddy,” Mrs. Hirsch told her sons.
Bold Venture gave Hirsch more than a Derby win: he sired Assault, who in 1946 won the Triple Crown. Assault was called “the Club-Footed Comet,” for his one oddly shaped foot, and he cemented Hirsch’s reputation as a star trainer.
Three of Hirsch’s five children trained horses. One died young in the war, and another, Buddy, was a success. The third, Mary Hirsch, made history herself when she became the first woman to get a training license from the Jockey Club. Growing up, she had been a familiar sight to racetrack workers on her pony, and then she became an accomplished rider of jumpers. Mary was a talented trainer, as well, but many attributed her history-making success to the fact that “her father thinks enough of her judgment to consult with her,” as The Times wrote.
Toward the end of Hirsch’s life, Red Smith wrote a column about his friend, who was “one of the most patient and considerate men I have ever known, the most gracious of hosts and warmest of companions, bubbling with mischievious laughter, great with wisdom, and an inexhaustible well of information and anecdotes.”
The racing world adored him as well. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter named Tommy Homes spent some time with Max Hirsch as he relaxed after Assault’s Triple Crown win. Elizabeth Arden Graham, the owner of Assault’s rival Lord Boswell, came to congratulate the trainer. He was characteristically gracious.
“He didn’t run his race today,” Hirsch tried to console her. “He can race better than that.”
“But we can’t beat you,” said Mrs. Graham.
Over the years, hundreds upon hundreds of people had to say the same to the great Max Hirsch.