12/09/2011 3:05PM

Hovdey: Palmer's words stand the test of time


No, this reporter has not yet finished his Christmas shopping, mostly because in order to finish something you’ve got to start that something first. However, this should not prevent a full-time kibbitzer from urging others into the malls – both virtual and real – to purchase all manner of horse racing goodies for those special someones who have had their fill of fruit cakes and hand-painted ties.

There is available out there a large thermos bottle adorned with the image of Shergar. No? Then there must be someone on the list who would fancy a genuine two-toned trucker’s cap sporting a piece of the Degas print “Gentlemen Race, Before the Departure.”

By now everyone’s got a Seattle Slew mouse pad or a “May the Horse Be With You” wall clock (thank you Harvey Pack). But here you go, something very right now for the wee tike – a Barrel Racing Course Baby Onesie.

Books, sure, for those who still read them. Alex Brown’s recently published telling of the Barbaro tale is a perfect companion to the Sean Clancy version of the story from a few years back. But fans of John McEvoy can’t wait around forever for his next Jack Doyle mystery (his latest was “The Significant Seven” from 2010), which leaves us to wander the aisles in search of anything wrapped in four legs and a tail.

In such time I turn to the classics, and by that I mean “This Was Racing,” the collection of columns by Joe Palmer, edited and introduced by Red Smith and illustrated by Willard Mullin. This is akin to a pitcher facing a batting order of Ruth, Gehrig, and Bob Meusel, except sitting down and nursing a hot toddy.

There was nothing about horse racing that did not intrigue Palmer. Indeed, were he around today he would be endlessly entertained.

Take last week, for instance, where there was much hand-wringing over the “downgrading” of the Hopeful Stakes from the coveted “1” to the more proletarian “2.” I feel their pain, as would Joe. The apparently capricious dips and twists of the grading system have kept Californians on their toes for years, never quite sure if their racing was up to standards they could never quite comprehend. Perhaps now that a sacred cow like the Hopeful has been so unceremoniously gutted in public, there finally will be a general weaning from the tyranny of the graded race system. One can only, um, hope.

In the meantime, New Yorkers can cling to the fact that there is no more historically rich race for 2-year-olds than the Hopeful, coming as it does at the climax of the Saratoga season. Palmer’s most famous Saratoga quote, as every upstate schoolchild knows, had to do with his regard for anyone who would mess with either the atmosphere or traditions of the Spa meet, to wit:

“A man who would change it would stir champagne.”

Clearly, the graded stakes committee never read Palmer. If they did, they would have turned the page and taken to heart more of Palmer’s vision:

“The themes at Saratoga are old friends and young horses, and most of the important racing is devoted to finding out what sort of two-year-olds are about. There are excellent and venerable races for horses above that age, but . . . the youngsters hold the major portion of the stage. Middleground, to refresh your memory, made most of his reputation there. And not too far back, Bimelech, Whirlaway, Devil Diver, and Pavot came to their full stature in the Hopeful.”

Going out on a limb, let me predict that nobody ever will be writing anything like that about the Delta Downs Jackpot, although Palmer would have given it a shot.

His best known quotes have outdistanced their author. Palmer was the guy who wrote of Man o’ War, “He was as near to a living flame as horses ever get, and horses get closer to this than anything else.”

Then there’s the rest:

“It was not merely that he smashed his opposition, sometimes by a hundred lengths, or that he set world records, or that he cared not a tinker’s curse for weight or distance of track or horses,” Palmer wrote. “It was that even when he was standing motionless in his stall, with his ears pricked forward and his eyes focused on something slightly above the horizon which mere people never see, energy still poured from him. He could get in no position which suggested actual repose, and his very stillness was that of the coiled spring, of the crouched tiger.”

If nothing else in these frantic times, Palmer is good for summoning what racetrackers know to be true about themselves, but rarely find the peace of mind to slow down and appreciate. Palmer was in love with horse racing because he found in its practitioners stories of naked joy and unbridled dedication to an endeavor, as he put it, “ . . . played with such extreme gravity that many parties to it ultimately forget that it is a game, and sometimes confuse themselves with normal people.”

Ah, but who needs normal when you’ve got Palmer’s tales of racetrackers like Buddy Raines, orphaned early, who “was not self-supporting until he was six years old,” traveled the Midwest with a horse trader named Langmire, and ended up training for the famed Brandywine Stable of Delaware Park’s Donald Ross.

Or of Lucas “One Grab” Dupps, a so-so jockey but a virtuoso outrider who could snag a loose horse by the nostrils, or of the tree-climbing dog bred and owned by Max Hirsch, or of a legendary trainer who epitomized for Palmer the fact that real racetrackers march by reflex to the beat of a very different drum.

“They can always be caught out,” Palmer wrote, “as was illustrated in the dusty story about the famous Andrew Jackson Joyner when he was put at the best stand in a deer hunt in the Carolinas. A deer broke through the underbrush into the clearing, and Joyner instinctively reached for his stopwatch instead of his shotgun.”

That was racing, and still is.