Joe Palmer’s ‘One Apostle’s Creed’, c. 1950

Jun 19th 2009 01:08 am |

One of the best books you could ever read is Joe Palmer’s This Was Racing. Published in 1953, it is comprised of the author’s racing columns selected by his colleague Red Smith. When Palmer died the year before, Smith wrote this tribute for his friend:

“…Joe Palmer could write better than anybody else in the world whose stuff appeared in newspapers…in the field of racing which he preferred, there never was another in his time or before to compare with him.”

Joe Palmer started his career as a writer in his native Kentucky after earning a PhD in English at the University of Michigan. In 1941, while working for the Bloodhorse, he took over for the famed racing historian John Hervey (aka Salvator) as the author of the American Race Horses series. When Stanley Woodward, the editor for the New York Herald Tribune, was looking for a race writer, he asked people in racing who he should hire. They unanimously backed Joe Palmer.

In 1946, Palmer joined the staff of the Tribune where he became neighbors and friends with Red Smith. He covered racing and wrote a weekly column that, according to Woodward, became one of the Tribune’s most valuable features.

Palmer – well on his way to becoming a race writing legend – died suddenly at the age of 48.

Image: Sketch of Joe Palmer by Willard Mullin from This Was Racing

It is difficult to write about something you love without being sappy about it. Palmer loved racing but wrote about it in a way where he didn’t come off as a Pollyanna. He criticized but avoided cynicism. Much of his critique was wrapped in a light-hearted, playfulness that never allowed you to forget that he was talking about a sport.

The opening piece from This Was Racing is Palmer’s “One Apostle’s Creed.” Palmer’s creed has all the elements of his wonderful style and unapologetic love of racing. While it was written over 50 years ago, much of it still rings true today. Here is a selection:

“Since this spectator will be trying, as well as he knows how, to bring you some of the color and interest and personality of racing, maybe he should begin with a sort of manifesto. A prejudiced witness is all right, if you know what his prejudices are. So this is by way of helping you to make allowances.

“Thoroughbred racing is an unusual sport in that anyone who goes past a racetrack feels privileged to throw a rock or two over the fence. There are quite possibly persons – even persons who work on newspapers – who are not entertained by football or basketball or track meets. But it does not therefore occur to them to oppose these sports, or to say unpleasant things about these sports; the reaction is just to pass by, with the reflection (obtained secondhand from Thoreau) that if a man does not keep step with his fellows it may be because he hears a different drummer.

“Racing, whatever else it inspires, certainly produces no indifference. This is presumably because of the betting, for there is a polite fiction that there is something ignoble about supervised betting as compared with betting over which no one exercises control. To be sure racing has often encouraged attack; it has been frequently found apologizing for itself when there was no one within earshot. It has attempted to play down its popularity while other sports were boasting of their attendance and the volume of their support….

“…Another opinion the writer has held for years, and consequently isn’t prepared to change, is that racing, apart from being big business in itself and an outlet for the good-sized breeding industry, contains a fairly large element of fun, born largely of the fact that people who must daily accept hazards must joke about them or become introverts. And you can hardly find an introvert at a racetrack on Decoration Day. There is a humorous fatalism among professional racing people, best expressed perhaps by the riding instructions given to a steeplechase jockey some years ago, by a stable foreman: ‘Don’t be skeered of dyin’; just let him run!’

“The professional horseman, moreover, is a thorough individualist. He has to be, for his hand is against every man, and every man’s hand against him. He must, on occasion, win at the expense of his best friend, and he must be able amicably to share the trainers’ stand with a man whose horse has beaten him a nose on the post for $50,000. He must keep his own counsel too; just a fragment of knowledge carelessly given away may enable a shrewd jockey to plot a winning race against his best horse. He must stand or fall on his own knowledge and his own judgment.

“Out of the contact and occasionally the clash of such personalities a good many interesting stories emerge, more or less held in solution on the racetracks and not very often tapped for public entertainment. If more of them were told perhaps racing would be understood a little better.

“The contention isn’t that everything is all right in racing. If there is any considerable industry involving millions of dollars and thousands of men in which everything is all right, it ought to be stuffed and put on exhibition. As far as I know racing has never claimed to build character: it does what other business does – it develops what a man has, be it good or ill…”


Joe Palmer’s This Was Racing was published in 1953. Used copies can be purchased online for less then $10 at alibris or abebooks — a bargain considering the content.

Details of Palmer’s hiring at the Tribune can be found in Stanley Woodward’s Paper Tiger (University of Nebraska, 2007)

Beleive it or not, this week’s post started as one about Monmouth Park. After reading a piece from This Was Racing on Monmouth, I was a little diverted and ended up here. After the hyper-focus of the Triple Crown season, my mind is now a flutter.

Congrats to Ray Paulick on the one year anniversary of the Paulick Report! In my Chris Farley voice: “That guy is awesome.”

UPDATE (February 2, 2010) Check out this excellent review of This Was Racing from The Second Pass


Filed in Palmer, Joe,Smith, Red,This Was Racing

13 Responses to “Joe Palmer’s ‘One Apostle’s Creed’, c. 1950”

  1. EquiSpace says:

    Definitely adding to the collection after reading this…thanks for the links to the used books!

  2. The_Knight_Sky says:

    Colin's Ghost wrote: He criticized but avoided cynicism. Much of his critique was wrapped in a light-hearted, playfulness that never allowed you to forget that he was talking about a sport.


    Sounds like a great writer. I had always wondered him through the stakes race named after his honor.

    How did he die at such a young age?

  3. Colins Ghost says:

    Interesting that your bring up the stakes race named in his honor. One was established soon after he died and was run as the Joe Palmer Handicap (won by Tom Fool in 1953). I found some references to a Joe Palmer stakes run at Aqueduct later in the century. Does anyone know any current races run under his name?

    I dug around for an obit but couldn't find one – so i didn't find a cause of death (I was also curious about that). From what I read, his death was unexpected and sudden. Red Smith mentioned he left a half written story in his typewriter (not sure if he meant this literally?). I suspect a heart attack but do not know for sure.

  4. Colins Ghost says:

    I forgot to mention: Thanks for the comment!

  5. Keith - TripleDeadHeat says:

    Great post…adding this to my reading list.

    The book link is going to be very helpful!



  6. Anonymous says:

    Palmer covered the races at Jamaica one day in the fall of 1952, and filed his story for the next morning's Herald Tribune. That night, he died after suffering a heart attack.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I simply love reading Colin's Ghost! Thanks.

  8. jim j says:

    i'm in the racing business and this is my favorite book.i've bought three copies of it so far and lent them out and for some reason they never come i know where to look for #4.
    jim j.

  9. Colins Ghost says:

    Thanks for all the comments! I especially appreciate the contribution on the cause of Mr. Palmer's death.

  10. Grand National says:

    Just finished reading the book and can recommend it to anyone who's interested in horse racing and even if you're not 'that' interested in the sport you can still enjoy it as it's a good read.

  11. Anonymous says:

    The audio book is spectacular.

  12. Don Reed says:

    You probably can find more interesting information about Stanley Walker in Richard Kluger’s “The Paper,” a history of the NY Herald Tribune (which died in 1966).

    People who enjoyed this article are urged to look up a review of mine that is listed with Amazon Books (just plug in “This Was Racing Palmer” into the search box).

  13. Amy Palmer says:

    I know it’s been a while since you published this blog, but I thought I should comment. I am the granddaughter of Joe H. Palmer and am doing some family research and am also puzzled by the lack of an obituary online anywhere. But yes, to confirm your suspicions, my grandfather died of a heart attack on October 31, 1952. My father was 12 and his brother was 14 at the time of their father’s death.