Working alongside Joe Palmer, 1950

Sep 3rd 2012 10:00 am |

In the relatively brief time that I have been making an annual pilgrimage to Saratoga Springs, New York there are two places where I happily part with my money. The obvious one — with handicapping skills equal to an 8-year-old — is the racetrack. The other is the Lyrical Ballad Bookstore. For a student of racing history, there is no better place to browse and ultimately spend more than intended.

This year’s catch at Lyrical Ballad included the Joe Palmer authored 1944 and 1950 editions of the American Race Horses series. With the exception of This Was Racing, Palmer’s work on American Race Horses from 1936 to 1951 is one of the few (relatively) accessible sources of his work. Needless to say, I am a great admirer of Joe Palmer. So you will understand my thrill when I read the foreward to the 1950 version of American Race Horses written by longtime New York race writer and editor James Roach.

Roach began his reporting career in the 1920s and had been on the racing beat since the 1930s. He likely would have been aware of Palmer’s work sometime after 1932 when Palmer began writing for the Bloodhorse. Roach’s opportunity to watch Palmer work on a regular basis would have started when Palmer became the regular race writer for the New York Herald Tribune in 1946.

Roach explained how he came to write the foreward, oddly enough, in the foreword for American Race Horses. The following would have likely transpired during the Hialeah winter meet in 1950:

Palmer wrote this book during December. He apparently forgot one thing. He forgot to get somebody to provide prose for this page. A telegraphic reminder from the publishers was delivered to Palmer’s hotel room in Miami on January 22. He knocked on the door of the room to the right, handed over the telegram and said, ‘Write me an introduction and have it ready before the third race this afternoon. You won’t have any trouble. Smith wrote one last year, and he didn’t have any trouble.'”

Occupying the “room to the right”, of course, was James Roach. The “Smith” referred to was the legendary Red Smith who authored the  foreward for American Race Horses in 1949 where he used the space to praise its author.  I think it is safe to speculate that such praise was to the chagrin of Joe Palmer.  Even so, James Roach decided to do the same in his 1950 foreward. Smith wrote that “…nowhere at all is there anyone able to write a story better than Joe Hill Palmer” and Roach further elaborated by describing the mechanics of Mr Palmer’s work by describing a day in the life of the the race reporter. Roach demonstrated that not only was Joe Palmer a tremendously gifted writer but, just a few years away from his death in 1952, he was one of the hardest working writers in the business.

Here is how Roach described a day in the life of Joe Palmer:

Let me give you an idea of what its like to sit alongside (Joe) Palmer in the press boxes ten months a year.

Take Saturdays. Usually on a Saturday I get to the races shortly before noon. Palmer will have been at his typewriter for half an hour or so, and will have completed one of the pieces that he has to turn out each weekend. By noon he will have put the marks at the end of 1,500 words for The Bloodhorse. Then there’s time out for martinis and the Harry M. Stevens patent-applied-for version of deviled crab.

You know that he broadcasts the Saturday stakes in New York for CBS. Well, when we get back after lunch he writes a page or two of copy (perhaps 600 words) for the introduction to the broadcast. That’s known in the trade as ad lib material. Then, perhaps between the first and third races, he writes his Monday column for the Herald-Tribune — a little matter of 1,200 words.

Next he goes visiting in the box area and collects some notes for his Sunday report in the Trib. Maybe, if he finds time hanging on his hands, he starts work on a piece for the Middleburg Chronicle.

Up comes the stakes race. Up goes Palmer to his CBS booth for the coast-to-coast job. Down comes Palmer to write his 1,200-word report of the race for the Trib. By the time the horses are going to the post for the seventh race, he’s usually through. He pats his palms briskly, say, “See you Wednesday,” beams at all hands, and heads for the exit.

By that time I am in the middle of the fourth sentence of the fourth paragraph of my Saturday chore. By that time I detest, I loath, I abhor Joe Palmer. At all other times I think he’s a right good guy, a most remarkable guy. He’s the best racetrack press-boxer in the nation….

Joe Palmer would write just one more edition of American Race Horses. In 1952, he died unexpectedly after a day of writing about the races at Jamaica Race Track in New York. In a previous post, I wrote that Palmer died while “on his way to becoming a racing legend.” I can now revise this statement. His addition to the Joe Hirsch Media Honor Roll at the Racing Hall of Fame this year sixty years after his death, makes his status official. Joe Palmer is a racing legend.

Sources, News, and Notes

James Roach in the Bill Shannon Biographical Dictionary of New York Sports, New York Historical Society

For more information about Joe Palmer, see previous posts from Colin’s Ghost

I have been posting images from my 2012 Saratoga trip over at Instagram, you can check out the gallery here

One of the features I have been writing for Hello Race Fans is called The Month Ahead, check out the September edition at the HRF website

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in Palmer, Joe,Saratoga,Saratoga Race Course,thoroughbred racing history

8 Responses to “Working alongside Joe Palmer, 1950”

  1. Gail says:

    Thanks for the great pics, and it is also nice to put a face to the name!

  2. Jenny says:

    Starts at 11:30 a.m., done before the last race …. that’s even better than ‘Fast Eddie” Schuyler of the AP!!

  3. Don Reed says:

    I’ll take all the Joe Palmer stories I can get! Thank you.

    I tried You Tube to see if by any chance, his TV broadcasts were available. All that I found were videos of some same-named weight-lifting lunkhead. Darn. Would have liked to have heard his voice.

    See Amazon Books for Joe’s “This Was Racing,” for my review of the same. If I’ve suggested this before, it’s because I’m senile.

    VERY nice photos, Saratoga and other places. Great kid, looks just like mom!

    Lyrcial Ballad, picked up some nice books there on the last weekend of the Saratoga meet, although the racing shelves had been stripped clean of anything good (save copies of Seabisquit). All that was left were the turgid clinkers that I think have been sitting there unsold since 1971. Every year, I see them again.

    Can I blame LB for not getting to the track on time for the first and second races – when my “numbers” came in, back-to-back, on September 1st?

    Be well.

  4. Don Reed says:

    Yup. I already recommended the book review. I’m senile.

  5. T.J. Connick says:

    Roach describes the emergence of perfect copy that flowed from Palmer without effort, without pressure, without sweat.

    Many are astonished by the incomparable quality and quantity that comes from the pen and keyboard of Joyce Carol Oates, but few are able to put their reactions as sweetly as Roach.

    Regarding photos of the big day: We saw a wonderful “triple” through the binoculars from our perch at the top of the stretch on Travers day:
    A new course record on the maybe-closer-to-hard-than-firm inner turf course by Zagora in the Ballston Spa.
    A display of composure, confidence, balance, speed, and determination by filly Contested and Jockey Bejarano to recover and fly home an easy winner in the Test.
    First dead-heated Travers since 1874. They had a mile-and-three-quarters “do-over” back then.

    Your shot of Contested and Bejarano particularly good. It was a great treat to see him ride.

  6. Brad T. says:

    Of course this inspires two, perhaps three, wonderful memories of individuals and places connected to the Sport of Kings.

    The Lyrical Ballad Bookstore is a nifty place to catch often missed goodies on the sport. Thirty years ago this student of racing picked up the missing volume of the Jockey Club’s definitive Racing in America series, written by several notable racing writers. In my case, it was Walter Vosburgh’s history of racing from 1866-1921, which remains to this day difficult to obtain to complete the five volume set, because of its limited printing.

    I had the wonderful privilege of working with “Gentlemen” Jim Roach. After his his stint as a most respected sports editor of the NY Times, he spent some time as Public Information Officer of the NYS Racing & Wagering Board, where I served as Secretary. And speaking of Palmer’s This Was racing, on my first day on the job, Jim turned to the Chairman and remarked that he hired the right man as I strode into the office with a copy of it under my arm (along with that year’s American Racing Manual, I might add).

    Some years later, Jim continued to suffer from a delibiltating disease and had to leave the Board. Afterwards, I forwarded him a copy of Raleigh Burrough’s “Horses, Burrough’s and other Animals,” and told me he found it so enjoyable that he sent it on to Red Smith. The legnedary Smith then put a few excerpts into one his NYT columns.

    Yes, Roach, Smith and Palmer, just three names that evoke the spirit of racing, when it was truly one of America’s favorite pastimes.

  7. Don says:

    I didn’t make it to the Lyrical Ballad Bookstore during my sole trip to Saratoga Springs some time ago, and I wonder about its name. Could it have been a tip of the hat to William Wordsworth and Samuel T. Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), a book of poems generally credited with launching the Romantic movement in English literature?

    If so, not a bad tip.

  8. […] Joe Palmer author of the ‘American Horse Racing’ series said this when talking about the summer camp, “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,” he wrote. “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.” […]