The sport of horse racing traces its lineage back to the 17th century, and buried deep within its history are countless untold stories. I’ve researched and written many of them since my early days at The Record in Troy and up through my tenure at The Saratogian, where I was Sports Editor and edited the “Pink Sheet.” Eventually, my path led me to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, where I’ve been since 2010. It’s unfortunate that the story of trainer Mary Hirsch isn’t better known. Talk to any devoted racing fan, especially here in Saratoga Springs, and he or she will regale you on the achievements of legendary trainers such as “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, Allen Jerkens, Woody Stephens and D. Wayne Lukas—all men. Few could tell you much of anything about Hirsch. As the first female trainer to be awarded a license by the Jockey Club and the only woman to train a winner of Saratoga’s most prestigious race, the Travers Stakes, in its 148 runnings, Hirsch deserves more than just a brief footnote in the sport’s storied history. Although her time in the limelight was brief, she was as impactful as many of her male contemporaries.
The running of the Travers dates back to August 2, 1864, the day Saratoga Race Course officially opened for the first time. That day, a mighty colt named Kentucky made the first of his historic appearances at Saratoga, winning the inaugural race for an ownership group that included the race’s namesake, William R. Travers, President of the Saratoga Racing Association. The Travers, which will be contested for the 149th time on August 25, has featured numerous memorable races. The immortal Man o’ War won in dazzling fashion in 1920, setting a track record that stood for 42 years. In one of the most improbable upsets of the century, Jim Dandy dashed through the mud to defeat Triple Crown-winner Gallant Fox at odds of 100-to-1 in 1930. And more recently, the Travers featured a rare dead heat in 2012; a stunning victory by Keen Ice over American Pharoah in 2015; and a record-setting romp from Arrogate the following year.
However, the 1938 Travers was in a league of its own. Eighty years ago, the race was the stage for a trailblazing young trainer named Mary Hirsch, who entered a miracle horse named Thanksgiving. Hirsch was the daughter of legendary trainer Max Hirsch, who by ’38, had already won each race in the Triple Crown series. He went on to sweep the Triple Crown in 1946 with Assault, and finished his extraordinary career with four wins in the Belmont, three in the Kentucky Derby and two in the Preakness en route to the Hall of Fame. As a child, Mary rode jumpers, and her family lived in a cottage on the grounds of Belmont Park for a time. As Time magazine reported in 1935, the young Hirsch “made a habit of keeping trainers’ hours. She got up at dawn to watch the workouts, helped her father’s stablemen feed the horses [and] grew to know as much about such matters as Max Hirsch himself.” And as per The New York Times, her father even trusted his daughter’s judgment enough to “consult with her” on equine matters. Mary had winning ways in her DNA.
In 1933, after several years in apprenticeship to her father, Hirsch formally applied for a license to train racehorses. To say that the application caused a stir in racing circles would be an understatement. “A 20-year-old girl has thrown a bombshell into that exclusive company of 50 gentlemen, most of whom are well past the half-century mark and who guide the destinies of the Jockey Club,” reported the Times. The Club tabled the application, but the following year, Hirsch was granted a license to train in Illinois and Michigan—and by ’35, it was extended to cover essentially all jurisdictions in America and Europe. Upon being granted the groundbreaking license, Hirsch, somewhat prophetically, told Time: “I have a few horses which can run fast. If they escape illness and injury, I think they can win in New York this spring.” In her first year as a trainer, Hirsch won ten races with earnings of $10,365 (nearly $200,000 in 2018 dollars). By 1936, she’d raised those totals to 17 wins and $18,575, and that summer at Saratoga, Hirsch became the first woman to train a winner there, saddling a gelding named No Sir to victory in the Diana Stakes. Then, in May 1937, Hirsch became the first woman to train a horse in the Kentucky Derby when she entered No Sir in the “Run for the Roses” (he finished 13th in the 20-horse field).
Max Hirsch, meanwhile, was training a two-year-old colt owned by Anne Corning, wife of New York Congressman Parker Corning. The bay colt was named Thanksgiving, and in July 1937, he was among Max Hirsch’s horses that were stabled at Saratoga and weathered a powerful lightning storm. Several of Hirsch’s horses were struck or impacted by lightning during the freakish storm including Thanksgiving, who was found on the ground, unconscious. Miraculously, Thanksgiving lived to see another day and recovered, and Anne Corning began to develop a friendship with Mary Hirsch, asking her if she would train Thanksgiving during his three-year-old season the following year.
For the ’38 Travers, Thanksgiving had the services of jockey Eddie Arcaro. The 22-year-old Arcaro had just won the first of his four leading rider titles at Saratoga in 1937, and earned the first of his record 17 wins in the Triple Crown series in 1938, when he won the Kentucky Derby aboard Lawrin. Arcaro didn’t waste any time with Thanksgiving at the Travers; the horse “made all the others look common, leading all the way and winning fairly in a canter by four lengths,” according to John Hervey in American Race Horses, 1938. The winning time of 2:03 3/5 was the fastest since Man o’ War. For the win, Thanksgiving earned $14,400 of the $20,000 purse, and Hirsch took home $1,000 as the conditioner. She was 25 years old and the first woman trainer to win the Travers, accomplishing the feat with a horse that was lucky to be alive. But the ’38 Travers received only the typical coverage. There was no mention of Thanksgiving’s remarkable path to the race, and many newspaper accounts erroneously listed Max, not Mary Hirsch, as the trainer.
Eight decades after Thanksgiving’s victory at the Travers, I hope this story helps to set the record straight.