Local actor Walter May purchased turf writer Joe Palmer's book This Was Racing about 30 years ago. It was an investment filled with inspiration and intrigue for May, and it eventually led him to write a one-man show that he's taking to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., next month.
Palmer's book is a collection of his columns from the New York Herald Tribune, for which he wrote the syndicated racing column, "Views of the Turf." The book was published in 1953, a year after his death.
May said he read This Was Racing multiple times throughout the years, always drawn back to the good writing.
"I started thinking you could probably get a good one-man show out of this stuff because the writing is just so good," said May. "I thought about it and I played around with it, but I didn't do anything about it."
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In addition to being a local actor, May is a retired lawyer. These days he spends his time working at the Hope Center, a mission that provides services for homeless and at-risk people, and he acts in, directs or writes theatrical productions.
His passion for theater was stirred in college. In fact, after accepting a role in a campus production, May changed his major to drama. From 2000 to 2002, May acted in 16 productions.
In 2013, Actors Guild of Lexington performed May's play, Gone Astray, a loosely based adaptation of the biblical parable of the prodigal son set in the coal- mining country of Eastern Kentucky. Bunbury Theatre in Louisville will be featuring the play in its upcoming season.
After Gone Astray, May was in search of a project to pass the time.
"My wife said it's time to do the Joe Palmer thing," May said. "And it was."
He used the words Palmer had written in his columns as the basis of the play.
"I just start telling who I am and I just start talking about horse racing as I knew it," May said. "I, as Joe Palmer, knew it."
Born in Lexington in 1904, Palmer graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1927 and worked as an English professor there and at the University of Michigan. When Palmer was crafting his thesis for his Ph.D., The Blood-Horse magazine offered him a job as an associate editor. An avid horse fan, he accepted, and began his career as a turf writer. In 1946, Palmer left The Blood-Horse and went to work for the New York Herald Tribune alongside famed sportswriter Walter "Red" Smith. Palmer died of a heart attack in 1952. In honor of his friend Palmer, Smith gathered Palmer's columns and published This Was Racing.
When May finished a rough draft of his one-man show, he invited friends to his living room for a performance of what he had so far. Each performance led to another: living room to living room and then living room to the Keeneland Library, where An Evening With Joe Palmer made its public debut in March.
Joe Palmer's son Stephen, a local attorney, watched May's performance at the Keeneland Library.
"It was a very good experience," said Stephen Palmer, who said fans of his father occasionally approach him to ask when This Was Racing will be republished. "You could almost see the lines come out of the book."
He added: "I find it amazing that people are still interested after all this time. I'm excited that the memory is alive."
For May, performing a one-man show is similar to a full-scale production. He still creates a character and learns lines, but what makes the one-man show different is the intimacy it can have with an audience.
For about 50 minutes, May becomes Joe Palmer and takes the audience back to a time when horse-racing was as popular as baseball.
"It really re-creates that world in a way that is very vivid and almost tangible," May said. "I think that is one of the great strengths of it."
Now, the play will be performed Aug. 21 as a featured event at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs.
Although Palmer embodies the love of horse racing, the one-man show will captivate more than just horse fans, May said.
"It's certainly appealing to that slice, the people that know and love the horse industry, but the guy is such a good writer. I think it can be entertaining for anybody," May said.
He isn't a hard-core horse racing fan himself, yet he was so drawn to and inspired by Palmer's This Was Racing.
"I'm a casual race fan and particularly a fan of good writing," May said, "and that's enough to make this a compelling project for me."