A Look Back At Mary Hirsch, Who Opened The Door For Female Trainers At Derby - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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A Look Back At Mary Hirsch, Who Opened The Door For Female Trainers At Derby

Mary Hirsch holding a horse named Jack Horner, with Max Hirsch looking on

When Vicki Oliver takes Hidden Stash to the saddling paddock on Saturday, she'll join a select group of trainers in Kentucky Derby history. Oliver will be the first female trainer to start a Derby runner in six years, and only the 17th in the race's 147-year history. In interviews on the subject, Oliver has made it clear she's not ultra-keen on the female trainer angle – after all, horses don't spend much time fretting about the anatomy of their owners, trainers, or riders, and true horsemanship isn't ordained by chromosomes. In fact, the very first female trainer who blazed a trail for Oliver and others may have felt very much the same way.

The first female trainer to try for the roses came in 1937, well before it was possible for women to be jockeys and before it became routine to see them as exercise riders or grooms. Mary Hirsch was first woman granted a trainer's license in 1935 at the age of 22, after initially being rejected on the basis of her gender.

In just about every contemporary mention of Hirsch in the media, she was immediately introduced with what reporters apparently considered her primary credential to be a trainer – she was the daughter of legendary trainer Max Hirsch. It seems Max Hirsch had hoped his daughter would not fall in love with the family business. Mary Hirsch was sent to prestigious boarding schools and admitted once her father had discouraged her repeatedly from following him into the racetrack life. Despite her characterization by sportswriters though, Mary Hirsch didn't pick up training on the strength of her family's name alone. Her entire life had been a self-guided, rigorous preparation for nothing else. She had spent some of her early years living in a cottage on the grounds of Belmont Park, waking early with her father to help feed his horses and observe workouts. She rode jumpers and learned to gallop as soon as she was big enough, learned to shoe horses and read veterinary texts in her spare time.

When Max Hirsch realized he couldn't dissuade his daughter, he apparently decided to support her in her dream. She apprenticed in his stable for several years, and eventually began training her own string. Bernard Baruch, esteemed New York owner and client of Max, was the first to place horses with her. One account suggested that Baruch, disappointed with the finish of his promising sprinter Captain Argo under Max's conditioning, turned to Mary at the end of one race and asked if she could do better. She said she could, and would make Captain Argo a successful stakes runner. Baruch was one of her chief supporters, but Mary also bought her own runners.

Still, for several years, she had to run those horses in the name of her father or her brother, W.J. “Buddy” Hirsch. She was permitted to do all the preparation – managing horses' health and training schedules, riding them, instructing jockeys — all the regular duties of a trainer until the final minutes before a race when she was not permitted to handle her own horses or receive credit in the program. Her paper training was evidently no secret, as it was reported openly in newspapers.

At last, Mary grew embarrassed at having to give away the credit for her hard work. In 1934 Hirsch requested a license by The Jockey Club, which at the time was the regulatory body for racing in New York. Her application was tabled, (which in this case was formal speak for rejected without having to go through the unpleasantness of rejecting someone), so she sought licensure in Michigan and Illinois. For reasons that were never publicly detailed, she was successful there. She became the first woman to bring a string of horses to run at Hialeah, where she was also successful in being licensed. With a win there by Captain Argo, Hirsch returned to the board in New York, waving her license and asked them for a second time what they thought about a woman training racehorses. This time, the body agreed, which Hirsch said essentially afforded her an automatic in to wherever else she wanted to run.

At the start of 1937, she had built a reputation as an up and comer with a small operation. In 1935, Mary Hirsch had saddled winners of ten races for earnings of $10,365 (more than $200,000 today) and in 1936, she had 17 wins and $18,575 in earnings.

Her Derby hopeful was No Sir, a son of Sortie out of Westy Hogan mare Fib, both of whom were trained by Max Hirsch. Mary purchased the horse from Andy Joiner in the spring of his 2-year-old season and immediately sent him to victory in the East View Stakes. He became the first female-trained entry of the Flamingo Stakes, where he finished second, and was also the first female-trained winner at Saratoga in the Diana Handicap. Ahead of the 1937 Derby, Mary was confident, despite facing a monster in War Admiral.

“With ordinary luck and a good ride my horse can win it,” she told media in late April 1937. “No Sir has worked well since he came to the Downs, and has shown he can go the Derby distance. he has a world of early foot and I think can hold his own in the early stages against War Admiral and Pompoon when the three of them probably will be out there fighting for the lead.

“Yes, sir. No Sir has plenty of heart.”

Max Hirsch evidently did not attend the Derby, wanting Mary to “go it alone.” Mary noted in earlier interviews that while her father asked her for training advice and had at times put his stable in her hands while he traveled, her training decisions with her own horses were independent of his. It was perhaps important to her that she be seen as an independent thinker. The Akron Beacon Journal noted that Max's absence would also let her bask in glory in the winner's circle outside his long shadow.

As racing fans well know however, there was no toppling War Admiral in his 3-year-old prime, and No Sir finished a disappointing 13th.

Mary Hirsch continued on. She took over the training of Thanksgiving, a promising 3-year-old owned by Anne Corning, after a freakish lightning storm injured several horses in Max Hirsch's barn at Saratoga. In 1938, Mary took the horse to win the Travers in the fastest time since Man o' War. According to racing historian and turfwriter Brien Bouyea however, Mary Hirsch received little to no credit for her record-setting win there, and many papers erroneously reported Max as the trainer.

Hirsch's acceptance by the New York Jockey Club opened doors for others. A 1938 Daily Racing Form note mentioned seven women who had subsequently been granted licensure from New York to Nebraska.

Despite phenomenal success, Hirsch's training career was relatively brief. In 1940, she married Charles McLennan, racing secretary at Hialeah Park, Havre de Grace, Keeneland, Suffolk Downs, Pimlico, and Washington Park. After the wedding, Hirsch turned her horses over to her father and brother and retired. The couple had two children and Hirsch, now McLennan, turned her energies to homemaking. The call of the track proved irresistible however, and in 1949, she returned to the track as an owner when her youngest child entered school. Her father gave her Chinella, a King Ranch yearling whose management Hirsch took on enthusiastically.

There was relatively little coverage of Hirsch's life after that. At the time of her death in 1976, an obituary revealed that she and her husband had bred horses at their Cowpen Farm near their Towson, Md., base until just before his death in 1971.

“Her dad was a tough act to follow,” her son, Charles McLennan Jr., told the Lexington Herald-Leader's Maryjean Wall in 2000. “And she had several brothers prominent in the horse business. It was a man's world at the time.”

After No Sir's run in the Derby, it would be another 12 years before a woman would saddle a Derby horse (Mrs. Albert Roth, as she was billed in official records, whose Senecas Coin did not finish). Dianne Carpenter remains the only woman to have sent runners to the race twice – in 1984 with Biloxi Indian and 1988 with Kingpost.

Shelley Riley remains the best finisher among female trainers after Casual Lies finished second in 1992. Kristin Mulhall sent Imperialism to a third-place finish in 2004 and Kathy Ritvo sent Mucho Macho Man to third in 2011.

It's only a matter of time before a female trainer claims the roses. Whoever manages the task, she will no doubt feel the same way Mary Hirsch did about the profession of training. When asked in an [otherwise uncomfortably misogynistic] interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1937 “What this trainer's life is like for a girl, anyhow,” Hirsch replied with the only true hint the public ever got of her feelings on the 'female trainer' angle.

“For a man or woman … I love it!” she said.

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