Joe Palmer, the former associate editor of The Blood-Horse, and celebrated columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, once began one of his pieces: “There are several ways of putting a column together. One is to work. This is generally frowned on in the profession. The other is to sit opposite John B. Campbell, a steward at Hialeah and the racing secretary for the New York tracks, and spoil his lunch. This is five times better business; he is not a man of inordinate need of nutrition, so virtue is served both ways.”
We’d never purposely spoil anybody’s lunch, but Palmer was a different kind of guy. The writer certainly could turn a phrase so that even those not interested in racing would read his pieces. A compilation of his columns hewn by his good friend and fellow writer Red Smith was released in 1953, the year following Palmer’s untimely death at 48 in October 1952. This Was Racing was, and remains, as good a book on the horses, horseplayers, and the characters of the game as there is.
Despite being long out of print, the volume is not that hard to find online or in antique bookstores. We’ve had our dog-eared copy since the mid 1980s and pick it up whenever we need a lift.
Walter May, an attorney by trade, loves good writing and a good story. He’s studied Palmer’s life and writing and has developed a one-man show around This Was Racing. He’s performed it in Lexington at Keeneland, and at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga. He took his show Oct. 13 to the Pons family’s Country Life Farm near Bel Air, Md., for a fundraiser for the Historical Society of Harford County and the Maryland Horse Industry Foundation that served as a delightful kick-off event for the Oct. 21 Maryland Million.
Country Life Farm is the perfect setting for just such a performance. Its century-old main house creaks under its historical significance, and its halls and porches are crammed with musty books and racing art from pre-Palmer eras.
Prepping for the show, May was reading through some of Palmer’s columns in The Blood-Horse from 1940 and discovered the writer made his way to Country Life Farm the day after the Preakness Stakes.
May, adding some Maryland material to his performance for the local crowd, acknowledged the time Palmer spent on site and delivered his show on perhaps the same porch where Palmer chatted with Josh and Michael Pons’ uncle John about the Preakness, racing, and perhaps the coming war in Europe.
From the performance, May-asPalmer remarked:
“Based on my recollections of the Derby and Preakness, the two worst tracks in North America, from an architectural aspect, are Churchill Downs and Pimlico. I mean, basically they’re both human-scale rabbit warrens; turn after curve after bend. One advantage is, after about every third corner you take, there’s a bar, so that eases the pain of trying to find your section in the stands. Yet, what tracks represent racing to a man from Iowa? Churchill Downs and Pimlico. Why? They both celebrate racing as a show, host splendid competition, and not just a 6-5 shot racing against horses with longer odds. I have to say I know of no grandstand that is clogged with nicer people than you’ll find at Pimlico. You may have to shove through them, but they are very nice. And nowhere does a first-race winner get a better reception.”
“I will say, Maryland folks love their own. If you ever want to be in a celebration you won’t forget, be there when a Maryland horse wins the Preakness. This department was there when Challedon bulled his way to victory in 1939, and I still retain pleasant, although somewhat confused recollections of the event. Some didn’t remember it at all.”
A stand-alone gem on the Derby that never gets old:
“If you want to go to the Kentucky Derby, you may want to reflect thusly: four years ago this spring, two men, now unidentified, laid plans that are about to come to fruition. One planned the mating that led to the winner of the Kentucky Derby. The other was lighting the fire under the mash at the Brown-Foreman distillery. I say ‘Strength to them both.’ ”
And we say strength to friends new and old that took in the engaging performance. Among those most moved was Josh Pons, an Eclipse Award-winning writer during his turn at The Blood-Horse before returning to the family fold.
In all, a grand evening in the Old Line State.