Max Hirsch won his first Triple Crown race on June 9, 1928 with an unheralded thoroughbred named Vito that left the other horses in the dust in the Belmont Stakes.
Maximilian Justice Hirsch was born to German immigrant parents in the quaint Hill County community of Fredericksburg in 1880. From his early childhood, the boy loved everything on four legs. Whenever he saw a footsore dog lagging behind one of the many westward bound wagons that passed through town, he would doctor its paws so the poor canine could keep up.
However, horses soon replaced dogs as Max’s favorite animals. He could somehow sense what was troubling an ailing or unruly horse even after the vet had thrown up his hands. His remarkable affinity for horses did not go unnoticed and resulted in an after-school job at the biggest ranch for miles around.
Max quickly progressed from cleaning out stalls to riding the owner’s quarter-horses at county fairs and other unofficial races. He may have been extremely small for his age — his parents’ prayers for a growth spurt were never answered — but he was the perfect size for a jockey.
Max was a birthday shy of his teens, when he decided apparently on impulse to run away from home and make a profession out of riding the ponies. Author Clay Coppedge came up with the explanation Max offered many years later:
“It was a hot day, and I was barefooted. 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.”
Max’s precocious reputation had preceded him, causing a big-name trainer to hire him on the spot. The switch from quarter horses to thoroughbreds proved to be no problem, as he rode in more than a thousand races at all the top tracks on the East Coast winning an estimated 10% of his mounts.
But as his adolescence came to an end, so did Max’s competitive days on horseback. Although he was still the smallest man in most rooms, he had gained enough weight to rule out riding for a living.
Determined to “stay in the game,” the ex-jockey turned to training racehorses. Times were understandably tough as he learned the business, but, as one biographer put it, “his excellent horsemanship and his sharp eye for a talented runner brought him success.”
Then in 1921, the struggling trainer stunned the racing world by winning the Futurity Stakes, at that time the richest and most respected event in the country, with a two-year old called simply Papp.
Eastern skeptics, who refused to believe a washed-out rider from Texas knew anything about real horseracing, dismissed the feat as a fluke. But Max made his critics eat their words with two-time “Horse of the Year” Sarazen, which outran an elite field that included the European champion Epinard in a world record time for the mile-and-a-quarter. He closed out the ’20s with a roar with the aforementioned victory in the 1928 Belmont.
At the Kentucky Derby in 1936, oddsmakers did not think much of Max’s 3-year-old challenger and rated the horse a 20-1 longshot at post time. That made his first Derby win even sweeter, when Bold Venture came home the winner.
At the Preakness two weeks later, Bold Venture again was not the anointed favorite. But thoroughbreds don’t pay attention to the odds, and he finished first by a nose. The stage was set for Max’s first shot at the Triple Crown, but a training injury kept Bold Venture out of the Belmont.
By the time Bold Venture retired, Max had found a permanent home at the King Ranch. The new head trainer convinced the Klebergs that strictly as a sire he was worth far more than the asking price, a confident prediction that came true with Bold Venture’s two sons — Assault and Middleground.
With a cleverly repaired split hoof caused by a surveyor’s stake, Assault won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to claim the 1946 Triple Crown. Four years later, brother Middleground bested Hill Prince in the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont but lost to his rival in the Preakness spoiling Max’s dream of a second Triple Crown.
In 1954 at the age of 74, Max won his ninth and last Triple Crown race with his last great thoroughbred High Gun. Asked a decade later why he was still hard at work, he answered, “Being in this sport keeps you young. There are always more races to run, and you live in hopes of winning your share of them.”
In his epic Hall of Fame career, Max Hirsch certainly won his share and a whole lot more. He saddled the winners of 1,933 races that earned purses totaling $12.2 million. His last winner won the featured race at Aqueduct eight hours before his death from a heart attack in 1969.