Most athletes of any sort have to be led, which explains why coaching is generally considered honorable employment. But Stanley Dancer, the harness racing guru and veteran whizbang whose record over three decades proves the extraordinary dimensions of his talent, isn't led, he's driven.
Dancer is driven by an insatiable desire to find, buy, train and drive the Superhorse, that quintessential animal with which all that follow will be compared. He searches everywhere, including at the end of all rainbows. Once he finds a horse, he's driven to train it to become more terrific than even he dared hope.
This year, Stanley Dancer has two horses which may be the two best 3-year-olds among the 15,000-odd standard-breds in the country—a trotter named Nevele Thunder with a disposition so calm that he could be mistaken for dead, and a pacer named Keystone Ore with a reputation for smarts though not for ambition. Superhorses? Maybe Thunder, muses Dancer—if, if, if. And, well, Ore could be—maybe, perhaps, possibly.
Predictably, Dancer is driven to find out just how good Thunder and Ore are. So when each was entered last Saturday night in important early-season races at tracks more than 250 miles apart, friends offered their I'm-sorries about the fact that he wouldn't be able to handle both of them and said things like, "Well, Stanley, no way, you can be two places at the same time." Which shows how wrong friends can be. For Dancer simply responded by putting together an intricate modern-day Rube Goldberg scheme involving cars being driven at much too high speed, a leased Lear Jet, waiting helicopters, more cars, chauffeurs and an absolute faith that everything would work out fine.
Everything did. Things tend to work out for Stanley Dancer, who has won more than 3,000 harness races, with purses of more than $18 million as trainer, driver and/or owner of all manner of record holders, including last year's Hambletonian winner, Bonefish.
Thunder, in his first outing after a 2-year-old season that was just beyond sensational (18 wins in 21 starts and earnings of more than $150,000), toured the Vernon Downs track outside Utica, N. Y. with ease, giving the swish of his tail to the one horse that challenged. Two hours later at Brandywine in Wilmington, Del., Ore also ran a more than creditable race. He was always in charge and won going away, exhibiting none of the laziness of which he is accused.
All of which caused a certain amount of excitement in the harness racing world (last year more than 28 million Americans bet $2½ billion on trotters and pacers competing in 17 states) and could portend an exciting season leading up to September's big races, the Hambletonian for trotters and the Little Brown Jug for pacers. Four times horses with Dancer connections have won the Hambo; three times the Jug. Now Dancer was taking serious aim on a pet project: he would like to become the third man ever to win both events in the same year.
"The reason I do all this," says Dancer, who is 48, "is because I love it. That's all. If I didn't race I'd be dead." This is about what he has become as a result of a dozen wrecks that have dumped him from the sulky with varying degrees of severity. His neck is filled with wire and his right arm caused great pain for years after a crash in the '50s in which he was smoothed over by a bunch of horses. In 1973, he went through an operation to fix a spinal disc and afterwards suffered a heart attack.
Dancer puts himself through debilitating days like Saturday "because I want to" and not, any more, just for the money. His personal income last year exceeded $500,000, and he estimates his 1976 income at $1 million. Or as Dancer puts it, "A lot more than Catfish Hunter." He isn't altogether cavalier about the dollars, becoming glum when he talks of 1973 when his health and his horses' lack of ability kept his earnings below $100,000. He admits that, "Making the kind of money I do has made it more enjoyable, sure."
On Saturday, Dancer clearly was enjoying himself as he contended with administrative details around Egyptian Acres, his scrubbed 146-acre spread in New Egypt, N. J., outside of Trenton, most of which he bought in 1951 for $5,000 and now figures is worth $2 million. Among the 120 horses now on the land (Stanley and his wife Rachel own all or part of 30 of them) is Su Mac Lad, who won nearly $900,000 before he was retired in 1965. Dancer keeps the 22-year-old trotter at Egyptian Acres (at a cost of $120 a month) in gratitude and because he can't stand the thought of the horse inside a dog-food can. Yet, Stanley can say, "You've got to look out for the future and to heck with the past." Helping him in that regard is a covey of eager investors, always ready to spend large sums on well-bred young horses Dancer fancies.
And so Saturday evening, with an eye to the future, it's a 50-mile dash by car to Philadelphia and aboard the jet—with Dancer at the controls. He hasn't flown much lately (an accident and close calls scared him off and caused him to sell his plane), but today he's in the mood and his spirits are high as the plane whines to 28,000 feet en route to Utica. Forty minutes and 263 air miles later a car is hustling him to Vernon Downs where he takes a look at Thunder and says, "If a horse don't cough, that makes me feel good." Thunder don't cough. There shouldn't be any kinks in the tail either, a telltale sign of soreness. No kinks in Thunder. "The only horse we have to beat," says Dancer after studying the program he is carrying, "is Steve Lobell." Thunder looks unimpressed by this pronouncement but Dancer admits to concern. "My horse has been looking fine, but you never know their first time out in a season. But he sure could be as good as any trotter I've ever had." That would take in Nevele Pride, Thunder's evil-tempered sire (he once bit two fingers off the hand of the night watchman at the Dancer farm) who campaigned in the late '60s and still holds many records.
Going off at 2-to-5, Thunder quickly is urged to the fore by Dancer, seemingly out for a jaunt through the countryside free of harassment. But Steve Lobell suddenly makes a move on the backside, even having the audacity to take the lead. Dancer said afterwards, "He got the lead only because we let him. It was nothing serious." But in making the effort, Lobell has spent his courage, and Thunder takes over the lead again at the top of the stretch, sailing in for a length win in the good time of 2:00.3. The horse with the reaching stride rewards those who thought he would at least show with a $2.10 payoff. Win bettors come out 80 cents ahead on a $2 investment.
But Dancer gets dollars, not pennies. The winning purse is $7,900, and he collects 10% of every winning ride. Plus Dancer owns 5% of Thunder, so there's another $395—a total of $1,185. Nobody's counting. Time for another chaotic ride back to the airport at speeds that blur the signs that warn of 40-mph curves.
It's getting on toward 9 p.m. and Dancer is due in an hour at Brandywine. This time he is not the pilot; he's the bartender. Now he's on the phone. Now a bottle of tomato cocktail mix is falling on his foot. Now he's on the phone again. He's exultant over a win by his 26-year-old son Ronnie at Pocono. He's mixing more drinks (rye and water is the big mover) though he shuns booze himself. He's lauding Thunder: "So nice, so smooth." He spends something less than five seconds admiring the dazzling sunset dressed in orange. Then he makes another phone call.
At Philadelphia a helicopter is waiting and everyone piles in for the rumble across the city and on to Brandywine, some 15 miles distant. The copter sits down in a parking lot where cars await. Dancer arrives on time. Did anyone doubt he would? He runs to look at Keystone Ore, who eyes him with a firm lack of enthusiasm. Says Dancer, "You're a nice horse, Ore. But do you have the class of Thunder? We'll have to wait and sec." Out of Ore's earshot, Dancer wonders some more.
Off they go, Ore looking surprisingly aggressive, and by the half-mile post he takes the lead. Groom Roy Penner mumbles that Ore does like to be first, the kind of front-runner who tends to find other interests if headed. But Ore is never threatened, wins by more than a length in 1:58.2, and pays $3.60.
Dancer's opinion of Ore has jumped in the last two minutes, and now he is saying to the colt that he bought last year for $75,000 (and will pay another $50,000 for if he wins that much this year), "You're an extra nice horse." For his efforts, a drive that was a piece of cake, Dancer got his 10% driving fee ($2,812) plus the 12½%, representing his share of the ownership ($3,515), a total of $6,327. And this doesn't include Rachel's 12½%. Rachel is involved in a lot of horses and was the sole owner of the 1965 Hambo winner, Egyptian Candor.
And with the $1,400 Dancer gets for victories by his horses driven by Ronnie at Pocono, he figures his day's work put nearly $9,000 in his pocket. He changes his clothes, pauses a bit for some shrimp and celebration and then is driven, this driven man, back home to New Egypt, just before first light. His plan is to be up again at 8 a.m. to fly to Montreal to race there Sunday and then fly home again; then to New York on Tuesday and home; to Brandywine and Columbus, Ohio,. Thursday and home; Buffalo and the Washington, D.C. area Friday; Pocono Downs Saturday. "This," he chortles, "could be a fun year."