Singularly Meritorious: Purple Hearts of Horse Racing

August 7th, 2021

In honor of Purple Heart Day, we observe several stories from within the horse racing ranks.

General George Washington wanted something simple for the men serving with him in the Continental Army. He sought a way to recognize “any singularly meritorious action” by a soldier, an insignia that rewarded loyalty and valor and encouraged others to the same. With that in mind, on Aug. 7, 1782, Washington created the Badge of Military Merit, a purple heart-shaped patch to be displayed on a recipient’s uniform. Nearly a century and a half later, another legendary general, Douglas MacArthur, took a cue from our first president and revived this award in 1932, calling it the Purple Heart.

Shaped like a heart and featuring a bust of George Washington in honor of his original Badge of Military Merit, the Purple Heart recognizes men and women who have been wounded or killed in action while serving in any branch of the United States military. Since its inception in 1932, an estimated 1.8 million have been awarded to soldiers in all branches of service and all conflicts since World War I, recognizing their sacrifices for their fellow soldiers and the country they serve.

Throughout its history, horse racing has done its share to support the armed forces in times of conflict, with some going on to serve themselves. In honor of Purple Heart Day, here is a look at three trainers whose time in combat earned them a Purple Heart for wounds suffered on the battlefield and then came home to find success on the racetrack.

William J. “Buddy” Hirsch

Assault wins the 1946 Kentucky Derby (Courtesy of the Kentucky Derby/Churchill Downs)

Max Hirsch trained a legendary list of champions, from Assault to Sarazen, but discouraged his children from following in his footsteps. William J. “Buddy” Hirsch, though, did not listen, joining him as a licensed trainer after finding a career on Wall Street in the late 1920s a more precarious situation than racing. In 1940, the younger Hirsch took on a new role: soldier.

As part of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, Hirsch saw action first in the Admiralty Islands in early 1944, when American forces took the small group of islands near Papua New Guinea from the Japanese in preparation for the assault on the Philippines. From there, the 1st Cavalry pushed into the Philippines, fighting their way down to the capital, Manila. Hirsch was later awarded the Purple Heart for wounds he suffered in battle and a Bronze Star for his work in those two campaigns.

Hirsch returned home in late 1945 to train for owner Edward S. Moore, but came down with malaria and instead took over his father’s Florida string as he recuperated. The younger Hirsch would go on to train champion Gallant Bloom and Triple Bend, and would be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, Like his father, his achievements as a conditioner rewarded with a place of honor among its greats just as his experience in combat was rewarded with a Purple Heart.

Bill Kaplan

Bill Kaplan grew up in Brooklyn, dreaming of racehorses and airplanes, but war called first: in 1966, he was drafted into the Army and attended officer candidate school before serving in Vietnam.

Kaplan rose to the rank of second lieutenant and led a group of 40 soldiers into combat during the Tet Offensive in early 1968. As he and his men fought, the future trainer was shot in the foot, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. After the war, Kaplan returned home to get a degree in accounting, but the work was not satisfying for a young man who had fallen in love with flying as a child. Kaplan went from accounting to flying, getting his pilot’s license and starting his own Florida-based charter service.

The Vietnam veteran made enough money to buy himself a racehorse, harkening back to his teenage days when his uncle would take him to the track. When changes in the airline industry caused Kaplan’s business to decline, the soldier-turned-accountant-turned pilot reimagined himself again. He had a racehorse. Why not teach himself to train? With that, the man who had led soldiers into combat became the man who prepared horses for battle on the racetrack.

In his almost 40 years as a trainer, Kaplan conditioned horses like Musical Romance, 2011 champion female sprinter; Imawildandcrazyguy, who finished fourth in the 2007 Kentucky Derby (G1); and Seacliff and Ekati’s Phaeton, both graded stakes winners. As a soldier, Kaplan showed valor in leading his men through battle. As a trainer, he's shown the same leadership and devotion in preparing his horses for the racetrack.  

George Handy

The racing bug bit George Handy early. The young Massachusetts native yearned to be a jockey, but war intervened and Handy instead became a Navy man, serving aboard the USS Kidd in the Pacific Theatre of World War II.

The USS Kidd saw its share of action from 1943 through 1945, “the Marshals, Guam, the Philippines, Okinawa, Saipan, Tinian, Leyte…hit ‘em all,” Handy told the Asbury Park Press back in 2005. On April 11, 1945, the ship was serving as a radar station during the Okinawa campaign, part of a group repelling air raids on American forces.

As the ship’s radar operator, Handy tracked a Japanese plane for 60 miles, but then it disappeared from his screen as it got closer to the USS Kidd, plunging into the side of the ship. The attack left 38 men dead and 55 wounded, including Handy, who took shrapnel under both arms, eyes, and in the back of the head. His combat experience brought Handy a Purple Heart and eight Bronze Stars and a new appreciation for peace and quiet. What better place to find those than the backside of a racetrack?

George Handy returned from the war too heavy to ride, so he turned to training instead. He got his trainer’s license in 1946 and made the New England circuit his home, winning training titles at Suffolk Downs, Narragansett Park, and Rockingham Park. He even brought Arkansas Derby (G2) winner Impecunious to Louisville for the 1973 Kentucky Derby, but injury kept Impecunious out of the Derby, ending Handy’s chance to win America’s most famous race.

Recently retired after more than 70 years as a trainer, Handy’s long career has featured horses like Paristo, 1981 Tampa Bay and Illinois Derby (G3) winner; 1975 Salvator Mile (G3) victor Proper Bostonian; and Grade 3 winner DJ’s Rainbow. Before he conditioned winners, before he served the horses at the heart of his life’s work, though, he gave back to his country, earning a Purple Heart while serving in the Navy during World War II.

The Purple Heart has evolved from a simple purple patch of cloth, an effort by one Founding Father to celebrate the “meritorious actions” of this country’s first soldiers, to this now-familiar symbol of valor amidst personal injury. In the decades since Douglas MacArthur brought George Washington’s vision back to reality, the Purple Heart has been awarded to soldiers like “Buddy” Hirsch, George Handy, and Bill Kaplan, all of whom put themselves in harm’s way while defending this country. From the front lines of war to the backside of the racetrack, these men demonstrate the selflessness and care that both sport and service require.