Turf writing legends Harris and Palmer make Hirsch Media Roll of Honor

by | 09.29.2011 | 11:49am

Legendary turf writers Dr. Russ Harris and Joe Palmer have been chosen as the National Museum of Racing's Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor recipients for 2011. The Roll of Honor was initiated in 2010 in memory of Hirsch, a distinguished turf writer who died the previous year.

Dr. Harris began his journalism career at the Canton Repository in Ohio following service in World War II. He became involved in turf writing and handicapping in 1957 at the Akron Beacon Journal, where he made his selections under the nom de plume Phil Dancer. Dr. Harris learned that the word Phil meant lover of horses in Greek. He used Dancer because of his fondness for the great Native Dancer.

Dr. Harris moved on to the Miami Herald and also worked some summers for Daily Racing Form while in Chicago, which led to a job as a steward at Hawthorne, Arlington, and Washington Park. His next stop was the Philadelphia Inquirer, and then the New York Daily News, where he served as a prolific racing writer as well as handicapper until 1988, when he became solely a handicapper through 2008.

Along with his popular columns and distinguished race coverage, Dr. Harris was among the leading public handicappers in the country for decades. He remarkably selected the winners of all nine races on the card at Belmont Park on May 8, 1981, and continued to thrive through 2008, when he was the top public handicapper at Saratoga.

Away from the track, Dr. Harris spent time as a teacher, and at age 75 earned his Ph.D. from Lehigh University in 1999. He wrote a 378-page thesis on the relationship between Charles de Gaulle and six U.S. presidents. Dr. Harris is also a member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame's Nominating Committee and Historic Review Committee. He resides in Bryn Mawr, Pa.

Palmer was born in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 18, 1904. He graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1927 and taught English composition and literature at UK from 1928 to 1932, and at the University of Michigan from 1932 to 1934, where he pursued a Ph.D. in contemporary literature.
In the summer of 1934, Palmer was hired as an associate editor at The Blood-Horse. Before school began that fall, the magazine offered him a full-time position. Palmer was only a thesis short of his Ph.D. when he wrote to his committee chairman at Michigan, Dr. Howard Jones, stating: “I shall not get back to Michigan this fall, if ever.” Jones replied: “My dear fellow, you were called and chosen to revive the dying splendors of literary scholarship, and I hope that after a year or two we shall have you back in Ann Arbor … I suppose that the fair women of Michigan are no rivals to the fast horses of Kentucky.”

Complementing his work for The Blood-Horse, Palmer wrote the 1939 book Names in Pedigrees, was responsible for most of the 1940 work Horses in the Blue Grass, and also a 1942 publication The Thoroughbred Horses. In addition, he authored the annual American Race Horses in 1944, 1945, and 1946.

Palmer was hired by Stanley Woodward in 1946 as the racing writer for the New York Herald Tribune, where he wrote the popular column, “Views of the Turf.” His work was syndicated into The Blood-Horse, the Lexington Herald-Leader, and numerous other publications throughout the country. He also worked for the Columbia Broadcasting System as a radio racing announcer.

Palmer died of a heart attack in 1952 at the age of 48. Following his death, the New York Racing Association named the Joe Palmer Handicap and later the Joe Palmer Stakes in his honor. In 1953, a collection of his columns was published in the book This Was Racing. The book was so popular that it was reprinted again in 1973.

Famed sports writer Walter “Red” Smith said Palmer's work was “the best that appeared in any American newspaper, on the sports page or otherwise.”

The reverence in which Palmer was held by his peers is reflected in the naming of the Joe Palmer Award for Meritorious Service to Racing, which has been presented annually by the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters since 1964.

The National Museum of Racing will present crystal plaques for the Hirsch winners in separate ceremonies; Palmer's award to be accepted by his son, Stephen Palmer.

The National Museum of Racing's Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor was established to recognize individuals whose careers have been dedicated to, or substantially involved in, writing about Thoroughbred racing (non-fiction), and who distinguished themselves as journalists.

Often referred to as the dean of Thoroughbred racing writers, Hirsch won both the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Writing and the Lord Derby Award in London from the Horserace Writers and Reporters association of Great Britain. He also received the Eclipse Award of Merit (1993), the Big Sport of Turfdom Award (1983), The Jockey Club Medal (1989), and was designated as the honored guest at the 1994 Thoroughbred Club of America's testimonial dinner. The annual Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational at Belmont Park is named in his honor, as are the press boxes at Saratoga Race Course and Churchill Downs. Hirsch was also a former chairman of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame Nominating Committee. He died in 2009.

Harris and Palmer join 2010 selections Steven Crist, Charles Hatton, William Nack, and Red Smith on the Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor.

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