Stanley Dancer, commanding the winner's circle at the 58th Hambletonian, pulled on the reins of the smiles he gave the crowd at New Jersey's Meadowlands track. Each time he began to look happy, his heartstrings overruled him. Dancer has known many good times while becoming his sport's preeminent trainer and driver. He was the first to earn $1 million in a season, and remains the only driver with three Triple Crown winners. He has known bad times, too; in 1973, muscle atrophy in his right arm and a heart attack during neck surgery all but ended his career.
But never had tragedy and triumph commingled as intimately as they did last Saturday afternoon. Even as Dancer drove the filly Duenna across the finish line in her second, decisive, heat for his fourth Hambletonian victory, his mind was on his own colt, Dancer's Crown, who had been the early Hambletonian favorite. Dancer's Crown is dead, buried just three weeks ago. Dancer once said he believed Dancer's Crown would break every trotting record extant. In winning with Duenna, he said, "There was a lot of joy and hurt."
The Hambletonian field had ballooned after the favorite's death. A record 25 entries split the first heat into two divisions—each two-tiered—and forced several drivers, including Dancer, into the second tier for the start. But a hole opened in front of Duenna almost immediately, allowing her to move out smartly. When some space cleared on the rail just before the half-mile pole, she motored past three colts into the lead. "Race luck," said Dancer. She trotted the mile in 1:57⅗ 5¼ lengths ahead of Tommy Haughton's TV Yankee.
In the other division, favorite Joie De Vie came out of the second tier, too, laying back on the outside until the head of the stretch. From there, though spread three horses wide, he beat out stablemate Astro Hill by a neck. The time: 1:59. The verdict of Driver John Campbell, 28, who is this season's leading money-winner at the Meadowlands but was driving in his first Hambletonian: "He was all done at the wire." That report didn't augur well for the next heat.
Joie De Vie was bred by and is owned in part by Maurice Siegel, an ex-Brooklynite C.P.A. from Palos Verdes, Calif. He admits he flunked French, but insists that joie de vie isn't a malapropism for joie de vivre. "Joie de vivre is the joy of living," he says. "Joie de vie is the joy of life."
In the wake of Crown's death, Dancer had temporarily forsaken any kind of joy. In the fall of 1981 he'd bought a bay colt named Armbro Brandy at the Fasig-Tipton sales. Barely a month after beginning to train him, Dancer realized he had a rare animal. He renamed him Dancer's Crown. "You could do anything you wanted with Crown," says Dancer. "You could crawl under his belly and he wouldn't hurt you. You could drive him with two fingers. He never needed a boot. He was an absolutely foolproof horse."
As a 2-year-old he had nine races and won them all. This summer he trotted away with two races, then lost a big one when a knee boot slipped and sent him into a break in the American-National at Sportsman's Park. But that glitch didn't strip him of his status as Hambletonian front-runner. Then on July 17, Dancer's Crown suddenly became ill and the next day underwent surgery for a twisted intestine. It appeared to be a success; the horse seemed better and even took some brief exercise. But his intestinal tract never regained its motility, and a day later he had further surgery that his system couldn't withstand. He died July 19.
Dancer was crushed. Within 12 hours a truck was hired and a casket built. By sunup on the 20th, Dancer's Crown was interred at Dancer's spread in New Egypt, N.J. Dancer flew south, to Florida and then to the Bahamas, remaining incommunicado until he could come to terms with his loss.
The sulky Dancer's Crown had pulled was placed in the paddock Saturday before the first heat. On it was a 1983 Hambletonian blanket of the kind given to all in the field, and the toteboard screened videotapes of his biggest races. Dancer hid out in the driver's room, unable to watch. "It won't be very pleasant," he had said. "But the best thing I can do is get up and drive the next race." Norman Woolworth, Duenna's owner, had helped persuade him of that 11 days earlier when Dancer pulled Duenna into the winner's circle at Buffalo Raceway after a 16½-length victory. Dancer asked Woolworth what he planned to do with his filly.
"Run her in the Hambletonian," Dancer recalls Woolworth saying. "You can't win it unless you're in it."
Or so Dancer tells it. Woolworth remembers a slightly different scenario. He says Dancer approached him in Buffalo after Duenna's easy win and said, "Guess we go against the colts." Woolworth nodded, and Dancer allowed what might have been his first smile since Dancer's Crown's death.
On the eve of the Hambletonian, some thought Woolworth had erred by holding Duenna out of the Hambletonian Oaks, Thursday night's filly stakes, and running her in the main event. "She's a nice filly, but I don't think she can trot with these colts," said Howard Beissinger, the veteran driver and trainer whose stable had four Hambletonian entries, including Joie De Vie. But Delvin Miller, as renowned a horseman as there is in harness racing, suspected there might be something to Woolworth and Dancer's bid. "They're not dummies," he said. "They wouldn't have kept her out of a $300,000 filly race if she couldn't trot as much as these trotters trot."
Or more. She seems to have an attitude to match the scolding mien that is evoked by her name—duenna is derived from the Spanish for chaperone. "She'd just as soon kick me as look at me," says Dancer. Woolworth calls her Old Twitchy Tail, but says, "In her groom's hands, she's like putty."
When the groom, Tanya Holwerda, 22, came from Holland to handle Duenna in May of 1982, the filly was as frail as she was temperamental. "We had a hard time getting her gaited," says Dancer, whose first Triple Crown horse, Nevele Pride, sired Duenna's dam. "We tried putting her front shoes on backward, and kept two head poles on her last year. She's improved more than any trotter I've ever had."
But she still has a tendency to break as a race begins. She did again at the outset of Saturday's second heat, but all it cost her was a recall because the break came well before the start. "She was off the gate a little and got scared when Joie De Vie came charging," says Dancer.
The next time Duenna sensed Joie De Vie on her tail, the race was on and they were well into the backstretch. This time, instead of breaking, Duenna simply broke away. Dancer pulled out to a two-length lead just after the quarter pole and awaited horses with a mind to challenge. Joie De Vie did, but Duenna held him off. At the finish it was Duenna by 2 lengths over Winkys Gill, the only other filly in the race, in a robust 1:57[2/5]. Duenna thus became the 12th female winner in Hambletonian history, the first in 17 years. Victory was worth $540,000 of the $1,080,000 purse. "I think Stanley was meant to win this no matter who he was driving," said Woolworth.
Dancer could plead race luck in the first heat, but nothing less than a brilliant drive won the second. The Hambletonian Cup was back in the hands of a senior driver after being held by young whippersnappers for two years. And it belonged to a native New Jerseyan whose recent obsession had been to win the event in his home state. The son of a potato farmer and his racetrack-hating Baptist wife, Dancer had dropped out of school in the eighth grade but had made the grade with whip and reins. "It's the biggest thrill of his life," said Jody O'Connor, Dancer's companion. "And the best therapy, too."
"I just went along for the ride," said Dancer, nodding at Woolworth. "Life must go on."