Max Hirsch grew up in the Texas hill country northwest of San Antonio, and he had one big desire – to be a jockey. Instead, he became one of the greatest horse trainers in the history of racing.
For more than 60 years, Maximilian J. Hirsch was where the action was on the horse racing scene. He worked early, worked late. Started young, finished when he died in 1968 at the age of 88. And during that life span, he was acclaimed as the leader in his field.
His knowledge of horses was well known among the racing fraternity. As far as the general public was concerned, they knew him as the man who trained three Kentucky Derby winner – Bold Venture in 1949, Assault in 1946 and Middleground in 1950.
He trained for a lot of owners, but most noteworthy was the running W symbol of the King Ranch of Texas. For six decades, there was Max Hirsch, chalking up victories that probably totaled more than any other trainer in the business.
On his 76th birthday, Max was invited to a dinner party at a restaurant in Syosset, Long Island. It was supposed to be just a small gathering. But 175 people showed up to honor him – leaders in racing and leaders in other fields. That was July 12, 1956. Fourteen years later, Hirsch was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame posthumously.
Max was born in Fredricksburg, Tx. As a youngster, he worked on the Morris ranch, and at the age of 12, he decided to jump aboard a freight train when a string of 12 horses was being shipped to the East coast. It wasn’t long before he had become a successful jockey, and at the age of 17 he moved into the training side of horse racing, and became even more successful.
If you had asked Max Hirsch what his greatest thrill was in his many years of horse racing, you probably would have expected him to dwell on one of those three Kentucky Derby victories. He would have fooled you.
“I guess it would have been Sarazen winning the International Special at Latonia in 1924,” said Hirsch at that birthday dinner. “It was a great race in those days – worth $55,000 to the winner – and Sarazen beat the French horse, Epinard. I don’t think I ever got more of a thrill out of a race than that.”
Then there was the time he wound up with a trunk full of Liberty Bonds after a horse he trained, Siereal, won a Fourth of July race at Aqueduct in 1921. Max never said how much he wagered on the race, but he told New York gambler Arnold Rothstein that the horse was ready to win (it never had won before) and Rothstein and his agents got down enough money to cash in $770,000 in winnings.
“Booksmakers had a lot of those Liberty Bonds in those days,” recalled Hirsch, “and did a lot of paying off with them.”
Wouldn’t that rate up there with his all-time thrills?
“Well, it wasn’t bad,” said Hirsch with a big grin.
Hirsch was justifiably proud of his Derby winners, but he was an honest man, and wouldn’t insist that any one of them was the best horse he ever saw. That honor went to Calumet Farms’ Citation, trained by one of the two men who wound up with more Derby winners than Max, Ben Jones.
Nor would he claim to have had the best jockeys up on his Derby winner. Ira Hanford, the first apprentice jockey ever to win the Derby, withstood a strong stretch drive by favored Brevity to bring M.L. Schwartz’ Bold Venture home by a head in the ’36 Derby. He got a break when Brevity was knocked to his knees a few strides after the start.
Warren Mehrtens was up on the club-footed Assault in the ’46 Derby, and the King Ranch star, which went on to win the Triple Crown, breezed home eight lengths in front, beating Spy Song, ridden by Johnny Longden.
It was an all-Texas Derby in 1950. King Ranch had the horse, Middleground; Hirsch was the trainer and Bill Boland, of Corpus Christi, was the apprentice Jockey. The finish, a 1 ¼- length triumph over Eddie Arcaro and favored Hill Prince.
“It’s kind of hard to separate all the horses I’ve trained,” Hirsch said at the time of his birthday dinner in ’56. “But I guess it would have to be Assault. But then there was Sarazen, and Grey Lag and High Gun, all pretty close to Assault.”
The best jockey of his days?
“No question about that,” answered Max. “Eddie Arcaro. When the big money’s up, he’s the rider you want.”
And if you were to send out a questionnaire to every horse owner, asking him who he would get to train his horses if he could choose from the field, the name of Max Hirsch would be at or close to the top.
Hirsch lived to the age of 88, but he had a philosophy of life that kept him young. He used to say “the best way to stay young is to stay busy doing what you enjoy.” And there’s no doubt but what he enjoyed his life with horses.
Max became a legend because of his ability to recognize a quality horse with promise. And he had a “simple” formula.
“A race horse must have brains, bone and the nerve to make good,” he claimed. “And he must have courage, persistence and bottom. Find a horse with all that and you can have a winner.”
Obviously, he found many with those qualities. Then he developed them into winners.
While Max grew up in Texas, and trained many years for the King Ranch, his favorite place in the world of racing was beautiful Saratoga in upstate New York. At his barn he maintained an open-house kitchen every day of the meeting. It cost him several thousand dollars to provide the free breakfasts. But he spent a lot of time on the other side of the track, too. “Champagne and frog legs for breakfast. The big betters in the clubhouse and the bookmakers ready for the action. That was all fun, too,” he reminisced.
Max was still an active trainer when he died in 1968. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.