What adjective for Max Hirsch, the man of the morning? Cagey, canny, cunning, cute? No, none of these. His once brisk walk is now but a shuffle and, at 78, he clings to tradition and ritual as few men do. Inestimable, incomparable, indescribable? Those are the words for Max.
Last Saturday he gave racing a half hour of tender surprise and quiet joy. With that same skilled hand which had trained Middleground to beat Hill Prince, High Gun to beat Nashua, and Assault to beat about everyone, he won the 43rd Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont with Resaca and then, almost as an aside, won the $44,900 Leonard Richards at Delaware Park with Waltz.
Two weeks ago, however, instead of standing in a winner's circle he was moving alone over the sandy paths of Belmont's stable area after Sword Dancer had won the Belmont Stakes. He had experienced a horrid defeat when his Black Hills fell in the mud and was destroyed. Grooms and sta-bleboys looked from the shed rows and turned away, wanting to say something but not knowing how to say anything. He moved in his shuffle, kicking up little puffs of sand. "Dead," he said. "My horse is dead. I had great hopes for him all spring as a runner, and Mr. Kleberg [the owner of King Ranch] and I both thought he would make an excellent sire. Now I'll have to walk by an empty stall every day and the memories won't be nice. But if you believe in racing, you have to dust yourself off and dig in again."
Four mornings later Max Hirsch was digging in to win the Oaks with the filly Resaca, who had been a maiden until but five weeks before the race. "Look," he said, "I know I'm going to need a lot of luck to beat Quill [until last Saturday the Eastern claimant to Silver Spoon's filly championship], she's a hell of a mare. Boy," he said to one of his grooms, "put the light on in her stall. There's Resaca. I can't fault her. She stands beautifully and trains easily and she's been coming along good. I'm going to take a try at the Oaks. Normally I'd have Eddie Arcaro on her, but after that horrible spill he took I've got to get another boy." Max Hirsch, a fellow with a good eye for young riders—he put Ira Hanford on Bold Venture and won the 1936 Kentucky Derby and put Bill Boland on Middleground in 1950, and both remain the only apprentices ever to win the race—decided on Manuel Ycaza.
Not too far from Hirsch, Lucien Laurin was readying Quill for the Oaks. Quill, of course, had humbled her opposition in the Acorn and the Mother Goose earlier this spring and in a lifetime of 11 races had lost but three. "Quill," said Laurin, "is not the type of horse that works too fast in the morning. She saves herself for the afternoon."
On the afternoon of the Oaks everyone strained to get a peek at Quill, the 1-to-4 favorite in the betting. Max Hirsch in his tweeds moved into the walking ring and in the world of nylons and Orlons and rayons he was rather out of style for a summer day. He gave Ycaza his orders and went to watch the race.
Addie Belle went to the front and Quill, who had been kept off the pace in all of her previous races, joined her. They went in a furious tandem, skipping the first six furlongs in 1:10[4/5]. In the next four furlongs, however, Ycaza moved. Resaca scooted past Quill on the far turn (the exact place where Hirsch had seen Black Hills tumble) and moved two lengths in front. But Quill came on again, and in the last 50 yards it seemed as if she might win. "Near the finish," said Quill's rider, Peejay Bailey, "she seemed to hang."
As Max Hirsch walked to the winner's circle there was a twinkle in his eyes and an alacrity to his shuffle. "Fourth!" he said. "My fourth Oaks." The grooms and the hot walkers; the Pinkertons and the players; and Mr. and Mrs. Robert Kleberg congratulated Max.
He went back to his cottage and savored his Oaks victory and his win at Delaware with Waltz. "Max," he said, "had himself a very nice day. He believes he shall have a drink and a steak and think about the future."
Eddie Arcaro, who took that nasty spill in the recent Belmont Stakes, came out as a spectator on Coaching Club Day, and his winning smile reassured millions of televiewers that he will be riding again soon. Asked about what caused the fatal accident to Black Hills, Eddie said one thing he knew was that the colt had not stepped in a hole. The horse could have crossed his legs and tripped, or slipped, or suffered a seizure, but the best bet is that when Eddie tugged Black Hills to the right to stop him lugging into the rail, the sudden shift in weight of the 1,000-pound animal put too much pressure on the right foreleg, causing the delicate structure to shatter.