Sat, Sep 10, 2005 - Page 19 News List

Harness racing's legendary jockey Stanley Dancer dies


Stanley Dancer, an eighth-grade dropout who became harness racing's most successful trainer, driver, owner and breeder during the sport's glory days from the 1940s to the 1960s, died Thursday in his home in Pompano Beach, Florida. He was 78.

The cause of death was complications from prostate cancer, according to his wife, Jody.

The US Trotting Association, which governs harness racing, once called Dancer "perhaps the best-known personality in the sport." He and the late Billy Haughton were the stars of the old county-fair sport that was revived in the New York City suburbs with the opening of Roosevelt Raceway in 1940 and Yonkers Raceway in 1950. The sport retained its new stature until casinos and lotteries took away the largest chunks of the betting dollar.

Dancer began driving horses in 1945 at Freehold Raceway in New Jersey. His first victory came in 1946, his 3,781st and last in 1995. In 1964, he became the first driver to win US$1 million in purses in a year, and in 1968 he drove the pacer Cardigan Bay to the first US$1 million year ever for a horse. Over his career, he won US$28,002,426.

"I've made a lot of money in the horse business," he once said, "which to me was like never having to work at all. I've been blessed with some of the greatest horses of all time."

He is the only driver to have won three triple crowns for 3-year-olds: with the trotters Nevele Pride in 1968 and Super Bowl in 1972, and the pacer Most Happy Fella in 1970. Seven times he trained and drove the harness horse of the year: the trotters Su Mac Lad in 1962; the trotter Nevele Pride in 1967, 1968 and 1969; the pacer Albatross in 1971 and 1972; and the pacer Keystone Ore in 1976. Four times he drove the winner of the sport's premier race, the Hambletonian for 3-year-old trotters. In 1969, he was inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame.

At 5 feet 8 inches and 135 pounds, he was quiet, soft-spoken and meek looking. As Red Smith wrote, "He doesn't look old enough to be let out for night racing." But in an era when drivers would generally dawdle for three-quarters of a mile and then stage a cavalry charge over the last quarter-mile, Dancer introduced an aggressive style that forced rivals to drive hard from the start.

He remained aggressive despite an endless physical beating. He survived 32 racing spills, four auto accidents, a helicopter crash and a plane crash. In his driving days, he had two heart attacks. In 1955, he broke his back. In 1973, his right arm started to atrophy from nerve damage sustained in a collision 18 years earlier. In 1988, he broke two bones in his back and tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder.

Several times, doctors told him to quit driving. He refused, once saying: "There is nothing dangerous about harness racing. The worst crackup I ever had came in an auto accident."

Stanley Franklin Dancer was born July 25, 1927, in West Windsor, New Jersey, near Trenton, and was raised on the family farm in New Egypt, New Jersey.

He bought his first horse with US$200 borrowed from his parents. In his first race as a driver, wearing borrowed silks, he drove a horse he bought for US$75 with 4-H Club prize money. He lost the race, but within 10 years the man who had lent him the silks was working for him.

In 1948, he started a stable with a broken-down 7-year-old trotter, Candor, bought with US$250 that his wife had saved for college. Over the next three years, the horse earned US$12,000, and a career had begun.

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