Racing in the good old days brought alive at Bel Air's County Life Farm

Reminiscing about horses and the characters who bred, owned and raced them in the 1930s and 1940s, Kentucky-based actor, director and playwright Walter May entertained more than 75 people at Bel Air’s Country Life Farm Friday night.

May performs a one-man show, “This was Racing: An Evening with Joe Palmer,” in which he portrays the legendary horse racing columnist and sportswriter Joe Palmer.

Palmer, who wrote for the old New York Herald-Tribune and The Blood Horse, had many of his best writings featured in the much revered book, “This Was Racing,” edited by his friend, the equally esteemed sportswriter Red Smith.

May’s appearance in Bel Air was part of a fundraiser to benefit the Maryland Horse Industry Foundation and the Historical Society of Harford County. Country Life Farm, owned by Josh and Mike Pons, hosted the event, which also featured a buffet.

The Maryland Horse Industry Foundation was chartered in 1988 by the Maryland Horse Breeders Association to serve various educational and charitable needs of the Maryland horse industry, according to the organization’s website. MHIF supports a number of programs, including career development for industry workers, and is responsible for the maintenance and expansion of the Maryland Horse reference library.

Friday’s event was billed as a kickoff for the week of the Jim McKay Maryland Million, the series of races for Maryland-sired horses run at Laurel Park this Saturday.

May performed from a makeshift stage on the “front porch” of Country Life Farm’s “Big House,” as described by Mike Pons in welcoming his guests. May was introduced by Evan Hammonds, managing editor of The Blood Horse.

Palmer, who died in 1952 at age 48, wrote about all facets of racing, including Maryland race tracks and farms. A colleague who wrote Palmer’s obituary in American Race Horses, where Palmer also worked, stated he was “incapable of being dull.”

During Friday’s performance, May, as Palmer, said he much preferred the charm of the Preakness Stakes run at Pimlico (remember this was the 1940s) to Churchill Downs in Louisville on Kentucky Derby Day.

But he also confessed to be amused that the Maryland Jockey Club had somehow lost track of the winners of the middle jewel of the Triple Crown when the Preakness was temporarily run at the old Gravesend track near Brooklyn’s Coney Island between 1894 and 1908.

For many years, May/Palmer explained, those races were left out of the Preakness record book but were finally added in the late 1940s, “so that one year it was the 58th running and the next it was the 74th,” enough to boggle one’s mind, he added.

He also explained that racetrack owners should afford their best hospitality to bettors who tend to lose their money, because a man who loses will return, while one who wins large sums, “will tend to then spend the money somewhere else.”

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