07/21/2008 10:56PM

Palmer on Saratoga


The plan is to get out of Dodge around noon Tuesday and head north for Wednesday's opener. No ideas yet: I prefer not to handicap the opening-day card until I get up there and soak in a little local air to get in the Saratoga mood and mindframe.

Another recommended route to that state of Nirvana is to read a little Joe Palmer, the great racing writer for the old New York Herald Tribune, who died in 1952. (The Trib died in 1967.) Here are a few passages about Saratoga from his classic book "This Was Racing":


"This is the month in which New York horseplayers are turned out on grass. After five months of concrete and asphalt and gravel, they may have the lawns of Saratoga to play with. They may even take off their shoes and wriggle their toes in the grass, though the Saratoga Association, which is conservative, will not approve.

"Actually, of course, the bite is on at Saratoga just as severely as at Aqueduct, and the art of sucker-trimming has been raised to a level which will thrill the connoisseur. Some of this is in the hands of imported organizations but the natives are adept at it, too, and you begin to wonder if Burgoyne lost the Battle of Saratoga by military maladroitness or if the local taverns and hostelries just sapped his resources.

"But being deluded, and even frisked by the citizenry at Saratoga, is a good deal like eating honey. You will notice that the gentry who kick and bawl about prices and practices at Lousiville around Derby time seldom have much to say about fleecing in Saratoga, though I can assure you that over a distance of ground Louisville can't give Saratoga a pound."


"Saratoga has its critics, of course, but it is customarilly 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, but you can't catch it at Jamaica."


"There is, in the Saratoga infield, a lake. On this lake floats, and has floated since 1620, a small blue canoe. For some years I have tried to find out why it is there, though being lazy naturally and by personal inclination as well, I have not been very persistent about it. Ask one of the older veterans of Saratoga and he smiles mysteriously and shakes his head silently. This is intended to mean he isn't telling. Actually it means he doesn't know.

"One reason I haven't worked more on this is that I've had a hint that there's an Indian legend connected with it. If I could ever be sure of this, I'd give up at once, because the noble savage, whatever his merits, was notably deficient in imagination. When I was in the fourth grade I could tell a better lie than any Indian legend I ever heard."


"A little outmoded, a little low on verve, and nearly always faintly patronizing toward the slap-dash ways of its contemporaries, Saratoga has kept on with its quiet ways, and its reward is that a little of the old time yet lingers.

"A man who would change it would stir champagne."


"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..."