Max Hirsch: Horseman for a Lifetime

Trainer Max Hirsch, pictured with trainee Black Hills, was a horseman for more than seven decades.
Trainer Max Hirsch, pictured with trainee Black Hills, was a horseman for more than seven decades. (Bert and Richard Morgan)

For many people, 74 years represents a lifetime. For Maximilian Justice Hirsch, 74 years simply represented the number of years that he was a professional horseman in the sport of horse racing, a remarkable testament to both his longevity and his love for horses.

Born in Texas on July 30, 1880, Max Hirsch worked with horses from an early age and rode in unofficial races as a young boy before taking his talents to the major-league tracks on the East Coast in 1895.

Over the next few years, he rode more than 1,100 races and won a respectable 10% of them before his increasing weight brought his days as a jockey to an end. But when one career ended, another began, and having spent the majority of his young life around horses, Hirsch soon turned his attention to training. He sent out his first winner in 1902, and thus began one of the most lengthy and remarkable training careers in the history of horse racing.

The early years of Hirsch’s career were a bit slow compared with his later achievements, but before long, his excellent horsemanship and his sharp eye for a talented runner brought him success.

One of his first stable stars was a colt named Papp, a very talented 2-year-old who won the valuable Futurity Stakes (then the most prestigious race in the country, superseding even the Kentucky Derby) and several other prominent stakes races in 1917. An even greater horse would come along a few years later, that being the two-time Horse of the Year Sarazen. After starting his career with three wins for a different trainer, Sarazen was purchased by Hirsch for his client Fair Stable, and the tiny gelding ended the season unbeaten in 10 starts.

Hirsch and Sarazen
Hirsch and Sarazen (Courtesy BloodHorse Library)

Many talented 2-year-old fails to maintain its good form as 3-year-olds, but Sarazen was an exception, improving on his juvenile form while winning eight of his 11 starts the following year. His biggest win came in the third International Special, the last in a series of rich stakes races that pitted the French champion Epinard against the best horses in the United States. Facing a top-notch field, Sarazen tracked a blazing pace before he took command and won by 1 ½ lengths in the time of 2:00.80, which was believed to have been the fastest 1 1/4 miles ever run in the U.S. to that date. Based in part on this victory, Sarazen was recognized as Horse of the Year for 1924, and he would repeat the honor in 1925 after winning four more quality stakes races.

By the end of the 1920s, the quality of the horses that Hirsch was training rose to the point where he began to enjoy success in the Triple Crown races. His first such victory came in 1928 when he won the Belmont Stakes with Vito, and he was back in the winner’s circle eight years later with a colt named Bold Venture, who shocked the world when he scored an upset in the Kentucky Derby by a head at odds of 20.50-to-1.

Bold Venture proved that his win was no fluke when he outdueled future Horse of the Year Granville to win the Preakness by a nose, but unfortunately, Bold Venture suffered an injury while training for the Belmont Stakes and was unable to complete a sweep of the Triple Crown.

Hirsch was surely disappointed to lose such a talented colt, but things would soon turn out for the best. Upon retirement, Bold Venture was purchased by Hirsch’s new client, the legendary King Ranch in Texas. At stud, Bold Venture proved to be an even better sire than he was a racehorse, and 10 years later, King Ranch and Hirsch were enjoying a run of success with Bold Venture’s 3-year-old son Assault.

Like his sire, Assault won the Kentucky Derby in an upset, but instead of triumphing by a mere head, Assault crushed the field by eight lengths. The club-footed colt followed up his Derby win with victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, completing the Triple Crown sweep that his sire had been denied.

Assault in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle.
Assault in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle. (Courtesy Keeneland Library)

But even with a Triple Crown winner in his barn, Hirsch was only getting warmed up. His next champion was But Why Not, a King Ranch runner that won six stakes races in 1947 — including the historic Beldame, Alabama, and Acorn Stakes — en route to honors as champion 3-year-old filly. Three years later, Max Hirsch won a third Kentucky Derby when Middleground — another son of Bold Venture — scored by 1 ¼ lengths over champion Hill Prince in the 1950 run for the roses. In the Preakness, Middleground was beaten by Hill Prince, but turned the tables in the final leg of the Triple Crown, winning by a half-length as Hill Prince faded to seventh.

Four years later, Hirsch won yet another Triple Crown race when King Ranch’s High Gun parlayed a victory in the Peter Pan to a narrow triumph in the Belmont Stakes. The colt would later add wins in the Dwyer Stakes, Synsonby Stakes, Manhattan Handicap, and Jockey Club Gold Cup to his record to end the year as the champion 3-year-old male. In 1955, High Gun returned and won the Metropolitan Handicap, Brooklyn Handicap, and a second edition of the Synsonby to earn the title of champion handicap male horse.

High Gun would be the last of Hirsch’s Triple Crown race winners, but Hirsch continued to train with great success for another 15 years, winning many more major stakes races. In 1968, he sent out one last champion, training the 2-year-old King Ranch filly Gallant Bloom to win three stakes races, including the rich Gardenia Stakes (then the equivalent of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies). The following year, Hirsch — approaching 89 years old — passed away on the evening of April 2, the same day that his talented filly Heartland won a race at Aqueduct.

It could be said that Max Hirsch never retired — he was a horseman, through and through, to the very end.

Fun Facts

  • Hirsch trained six horses that are recognized as champions: Assault, But Why Not, Dawn Play, Gallant Bloom, High Gun, and Sarazen.
  • Hirsch was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1959.
  • Three of Hirsch’s children also became horse trainers, including son William “Buddy” Hirsch and daughter Mary Hirsch. Buddy Hirsch succeeded his father as the primary trainer for King Ranch and was later inducted into the Hall of Fame, while Mary Hirsch was the first woman to receive a trainer’s license from the Jockey Club and was also the first woman to saddle a horse in the Kentucky Derby, sending out No Sire to finish thirteenth in 1937.
  • Hirsch trained three horses that were ranked on BloodHorse’s list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century: Assault (#33), Gallant Bloom (#79), and Sarazen (#92).

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