not quite sure why Max Hirsch ran away from home to become a horse
trainer. He was already working with and riding horses on the Morris
Ranch near his hometown of Fredericksburg
when something got into him and he decided to cast his fate with
some horses bound for Baltimore, Maryland.
Born Maximilian Justice Hirsch in 1880, Hirsch grew up in a time
of covered wagon and died just a few months before the first moon
landing. As a youngster he watched the wagons making their way across
the Hill Country
and looked for dogs with sore paws that were lagging behind the
wagons. He would bandage the hard-traveling dogs’ paws and send
them on their way in hopes that they would be able to catch up to
the wagons. This sympathetic nature of a healer would serve him
well on the Morris
Ranch and beyond.
Ranch was owned by Francis Morris, a wealthy New York broker
who also owned the fancy Morris Park racetrack in New York City.
Hirsch had a way with horses, same as he did with dogs, and he found
work at the Morris
Ranch when he was still a boy. It’s sometimes assumed that Hirsch
learned all the tricks of the horse trade at the Morris
Ranch but that’s not the case. For reasons that he could never
explain, he decided one day when he was 12 years old to hop a freight
train bound for Baltimore.
“It was a hot day, and I was barefooted,” he recalled several times
over the years. “Suddenly the urge hit me. I had to go with the
horses. So, clad in blue jeans and without a word to my parents,
I climbed aboard a freight car with the horses and was off to Baltimore.”
In Maryland he went to work for R. Wyndham Walden, trainer of seven
Preakness and four Belmont Stakes winners. Hirsch arrived in Baltimore
as a wee lad, about the right size to be a jockey. He rode Morris’
Gutta Percha to his first victory in 1895 and would go on to ride
123 winners before he outgrew the profession. He became a groom
and eventually a legendary trainer.
spent much of his career working for the King Ranch in a part of
Texas known as the Wild Horse Desert, historical birthplace of the
finest quarter horses in America. The only Texas horse to win horse
racing’s Triple Crown, Assault, was born on the King Ranch. Robert
Kleberg, Jr., who could judge human talent as well as horses, hired
Hirsch to train Assault.
Though he was sired by Derby winner Bold Venture at the King Ranch,
Assault turned out to be a rather unpromising colt. He was described
as having a “delicate” look about him. That was before he stepped
on a surveyor’s stake and split his hoof, effectively crippling
advised to put the horse down and out of its misery but Kleberg
instead turned the horse over to vaquero Lolo Trevino and a veterinarian
to rehabilitate the horse. Hirsch devised a steel spring for the
hoof that allowed Assault to run without stumbling. Even with all
this support, Assault finished 12th in his first race as a two-year
old. He won his first three races as a three-year old but entered
the Kentucky Derby as an 8-1 underdog.
Richard Kleberg, Sr. listened to the 1946 Kentucky Derby on a car
radio with some King Ranch vaqueros, who took a break from branding
cattle to listen as the “Club Footed Comet” won the Derby by a record
eight lengths. At the Preakness, Assault charged from sixth place
to take a four-length lead but barely held on to beat a furious
charge by Lord Boswell down the stretch. Assault stumbled out of
the gate at Belmont but recovered to win by three lengths in a race
where, despite the Derby and Preakness wins, he still wasn’t listed
as a favorite.
Assault, who lived 28 years and was buried on the King Ranch in
1971, is one of just 10 horses to have ever won the Triple Crown
and the only one from Texas .
Horses that Max Hirsch trained won 1,933 times over his 60-year
career and earned more than $12 million. Hirsch was elected to the
horse racing Hall of Fame in 1959 and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame
Asked the secret to his longevity at the age of 87, Hirsch said,
“Being in this sport keeps you young, because there’s always another
colt, another filly, to train…You always look to tomorrow. There
are always more races to run, and you live in hopes of winning your
share of them.”
Max Hirsch did.
© Clay Coppedge
8, 2011 Column
More "Letters from Central Texas"
of Morris Ranch by Michael Barr