Kip Elser called me after watching Walter May's production of "This was Racing: An Evening with Joe Palmer" at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame Friday.
"You've got to go see it," Elser said. "It's brilliant, the way he uses his phrases . . . the way he paints the scene . . . the way he . . ."
Over the years, I've read Palmer's book, a collection of columns and features from his writing at the New York Herald Tribune between February 1946 and Oct. 31, 1952 (the day he died with an unfinished column in his typewriter), in any number of ways.
I've read it in its entirety, one column after another after another through 270 pages. I've read it sporadically, hopping in for a page or two, while waiting for school to let out or before calling it a day. I've read 50 pages in a row and lost it for months, read 30 pages and forgot about it for years.
We named our website thisishorseracing.com in part as a tribute to the book. My brother Joe brings his copy (a 1953 third printing that sold for $3.75 new) to Saratoga every year.
The stories are timeless, simple but splendid jaunts away from real life and back in time.
I've read about Vanderbilt's hat, Stymie, Arcaro and Atkinson and points south. I've learned about Hialeah's coconuts, flamingoes and alligators. Palmer has taken me down Whiskey Road and Easy Street and into the field to meet Greentree's Gas House Gang.
Red Smith, another hero, wrote the foreword to the book and pretty much summed up racing's greatest writer.
To him, racing was fun. Or, rather, the life which racing made possible, and which revolved around racing, was fun. He looked for fun always, even when he was at the typewriter sketching the outline for a chapter of a book on racing.
"How to Enter a Race Track" was the tentative caption of the chapter, and the notes went thus: "Physical arrangement of tracks...placing of grandstand and clubhouse...paddock and walking ring...stations of touts and tipsters...relative merits of red, green and yellow selection cards...how to offer a stranger a match...interval between races...value of looking at horses in paddock and in post parade...reading odds board, shoe board, scratch board...selection and disposal of pari-mutuel tickets...fabrication of explanations for losers...dark machinations of turf well known to everyone, but those who know are never on inside...value of tips...value of buying round-trip tickets on race train..." It would have been an enriching book. It did not get written.
This was Racing is the next best thing.
I have never been disappointed.
The longest and, perhaps, best piece is Saratoga, or The Horse at Home. I've read it the most, for inspiration, for escape.
I wish I could deliver it as well as May, but here are some excerpts. Sit back and enjoy Palmer's gift.
American racing was seriously disrupted ninety years ago by a dispute over state's rights. The war which accompanied this ended calamitously through the hasty action of a General R. E. Lee at Appomattox, presumably because he did not then envision Paul Robeson, but racing gained here, as it does in most wars. It got Saratoga.
Though Saratoga avails itself of a squalling public address system and an unornamental but quite handy totalisator in the afternoons, it has nevertheless contrived to stand fairly still while racing became "modern." It is the only track this side of Keeneland where horses are saddled in the open, and where the ordinary racing customer can see enough of a horse to recognize him next time. A little outmoded, a little low on verve, and nearly always faintly patronizing towards the slap-dash ways of its contemporaries, Saratoga has kept its quiet ways, and its reward is that a little of the old time still lingers.
A man who would change it would stir champagne.
It is therefore a relief to feel the attraction of a racing plant with demonstrably deserves it. For four wonderful, sleepy weeks – a small voice, calling itself experience, here says, "You mean sleepless weeks" – racing makes at least a partial return to the unhurried, graceful and leisurely atmosphere in which it was born. This flavor lingers in but a few places and is consequently the more precious.
Saratoga has its critics, of course, but it is customarily shelled from long range. Let a man hang around the place for a while and drink his breakfast from the clubhouse porch and you have no more trouble with him. Saratoga is slightly contagious, though you can't catch it in Jamaica.
Saratoga represents more than a vicarious triumph. It is a successful turning back of the pages, a stroll through the mirror, the slow drop of Alice down the rabbit-hole. It is a month of living in about 1910, though some visitors insist that the hotels take this too literally. And I suppose that in the year Novelty beat Iron Mask for the Hopeful Stakes, a dollar would have gone further, though from what I hear, it went as fast.
I rather think that the charm of Saratoga is that it represents, to those to whom racing is a way of life, something to which they may at need return. It is, of course, the oldest track in America, and its ways are old-fashioned ways. After eleven months of new-fashioned ways, it is as restful as old slippers, as quiet as real joy.
Get the book – it's like an old friend, picking up right where you left off. And let us know if May does an encore.