Joe Palmer on Saratoga Race Course

Jul 20th 2014 08:30 am |

Originally published July 20, 2010

Red Smith, while reminiscing on Joe Palmer day at Belmont Park in 1957, recalled this quote from Palmer:

“A man who spends his life poking around racetracks gets, in addition to a view of human nature which is at once more tolerant and less rosy than any endorsed by the clergy, a rather unreasonable fondness for certain places. I say unreasonable, because it does not seem to be dependent upon architectural or horticultural attractiveness, on setting, on comfort, or even on the quality of cleanliness of the racing at these places.”

Joe Palmer spent most of his working life at racetracks and, no doubt, shared an “unreasonable fondness for certain places” but when it came to Saratoga he wrote: “It is a relief to feel an attraction of a racing plant which demonstrably deserves it.”

Many have gushed about the track in upstate New York, but Palmer’s unmatched talent among the racing scribes of his era makes his essay about Saratoga from This Was Racing worth revisiting as we approach another season at the Spa.  Here is a selection from “Saratoga, or the Horse at Home”:

Saratoga Race Course, circa 1900

“American racing was seriously disrupted about ninety years ago by a dispute over states’ 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.

“In 1863, with the Southern tracks such as Metarie and Lexington slightly unavailable because of the growth of paternalism in the Federal government, a group of racing men staged a meeting at Saratoga, which had long been a health resort in the days before you could keep your health by buying pills or choosing the proper brand of cigarettes…”

[Editor’s note:  I love this reference.  During the middle of last century, cigarette ads, touted their brands based on their purported health benefits.  A preposterous idea today, but one that was common back then.  Apparently Mr. Palmer didn’t buy it.]

“…Even when this tourist first went to Saratoga [mid-1930s] there were six races a day, starting at 2:30 or 3 (memory wavers a little), and people were out of the track at 5 o’clock to begin tanking up against the yearlings sales which followed after dinner. Now its eight races and the daily double and the damned public address system. But Saratoga is still the focal point of racing in New York, at least, and if it goes, something dies…”

“…This is because Saratoga, in our time, has become a symbol. It doesn’t draw as many people as Jamaica and Aqueduct. It doesn’t contribute as much to the state treasury because the handle is lower than at the least of the metropolitan tracks. It has somewhat antiquated clubhouse from which you cannot see very well unless you have a box or a friend. It doesn’t make any money for the stockholders.

“Even so, any time you want to know whether racing in New York can still consider itself a sport or whether it is a highly elaborate pin-ball machine, just look to see if Saratoga has dates. There is no objection here to people who try to make money — I try it myself, with rather indifferent success. But there should be, in racing or baseball or business, an occasional gesture which is not made solely toward the cashier…”

“…Perhaps nothing is as hard to do, or as expensive, as to keep time from passing, and Saratoga has mastered at least the illusion of this, with the result that racing in August is a jewel…”

“…Saratoga represents a reaffirmation of racing as enjoyment, of the original forces which first called it into being. You come away feeling that, well, there is going to be a good deal of concrete and gravel in your horoscope for a goodish while, but afterward there will be Saratoga again, with its shaded paddocks…

“…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…”

In an era when sports traditions are more manufactured than made, Saratoga’s authenticity stands alone. Baseball can tear down the “House that Ruth Built” but racing, even with its many problems, remains respectful of its past epitomized in a place like Saratoga. Over fifty years ago, Joe Palmer spoke in the same reverential tone that we speak of it today. Times have changed but the tradition and history at Saratoga’s core would require quite a feat of ineptitude or unimaginable disaster to erase.


Red Smith, “Joe Palmer Day at Belmont Park [1957],” from The Best of Red Smith, 1963
Joe Palmer, “Saratoga, or the Horse at Home,” from This was Racing, edited by Red Smith, 1953

Read Red Smith’s tribute to his friend Joe Palmer at the National Turf Writer’s Association

Photograph of the Saratoga Grandstand, New York Public Library

I have touted This Was Racing in prior posts.  That is where you can read the full version of the Saratoga essay quoted above.  Every time I read Joe Palmer, I appreciate him a little more.


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

3 Responses to “Joe Palmer on Saratoga Race Course”

  1. Barb says:

    Great piece! Never been to the races at Saratoga yet, but hope to get there! Keeneland may be the only track comparable to it in the country. I absolutely love the history in your blog. Thanks!

  2. GaryD says:

    marvelous and timely…..there may be a Joe Palmer exhibit next yr as part of the 75th anniv of Kee….location not firm,but content and format solidifying…..maybe even a 3rd printing of the book…stay tuned…………

  3. AggieB says:

    Oh, lovely piece. I enjoy Joe Palmer’s writings-would love to see an exhibit.