It's just a book, right? And center field at Fenway Park is just grass. The Kentucky Derby blanket of roses is just a bunch of flowers. The Stanley Cup is just a trophy.
This Was Racing, by Joe Palmer, was published in 1953. It's so good, Red Smith edited it and wrote the foreword. The book is a collection of racing's columns written by Palmer, sports columnist for the New York Herald Tribune. Palmer did more than write. He spun tales, painted pictures with words. Pick up This Was Racing today and you'll be standing next to Palmer as he listens to jockey Ted Atkinson or watches morning work at the old Columbia Training Center in South Carolina. You'll see Elkridge give owner/trainer Kent Miller a kiss, the way Palmer saw it. You'll feel the power of Stymie, standing before the crowd one last time at old Jamaica. Read This Was racing and you'll get Thoroughbred racing and all its little pieces.
We have two copies in the office - one with a dust jacket, one without. Somebody sent us the jacketless one with a note, "I thought you might enjoy. Pass along to another when you are done. All the best." We did not follow instructions. The book is too good, but maybe we can pass along some of the magic from the pages - in our writing (hah) and Palmer's.
This Was Racing came to be because of Palmer's death - with an unfinished column in the typewriter - on Halloween 1952. As Smith wrote in the Foreword:
This book, strictly speaking, wasn't written; it was demanded, or at least requested. Within a day or so after Joe Palmer's death on October 31, 1952, letters from his readers began to arrive. In a surprising number, the same suggestion appeared: "I have never been to a race track, I have no interest in racing and I never met Mr. Palmer, yet I feel I have lost a friend. Can't we have his work preserved for us in book form?"
So, for Palmer's fans, for Palmer, for racing, for history, for us, Smith collected the man's work. There are 105 columns divided into five sections - Horses, Men, Not Under Oath, Places and Long After Barnum. The book starts with Smith's foreword, then moves to Palmer's timeless One Apostle's Creed and then the columns - which spill and branch and flow in directions you didn't know possible. They're funny, meaningful, powerful.
Though long since out of print, This Was Racing does turn up on Amazon and in quality used bookstores (such as Lyrical Ballad in Saratoga). If you see one, buy it. You won't be disappointed.