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Let's run it up a little
Frank Deford
January 27, 1975
Dan Lasater made a fortune in the fast-food business before he was 30, retired, got into thoroughbred horse racing, hired a bunch of fat, shrewd men and fast had himself another winner
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January 27, 1975

Let's Run It Up A Little

Dan Lasater made a fortune in the fast-food business before he was 30, retired, got into thoroughbred horse racing, hired a bunch of fat, shrewd men and fast had himself another winner

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Fernung recalls that Lasater had little spare time for anything much except girls. He was always working at odd jobs and dreaming the sort of fantasies poor children do. The last time he was with his mother, she pulled out an old high school yearbook and showed him the prophecy for Dan Lasater: Millionaire. "I always wanted that," he says. In April 1960, just before he graduated, he took a job picking up litter at McDonald's for 60� an hour. Within the year, at age 18, he was the $9,000-a-year manager.

"Pretty soon I got a little antsy, though," Lasater says, "and I started looking for a guy who would back me for a place of my own. I met Norman Wiese, who was the Olds dealer in town, and he trusted me." This affiliation resulted in Scotty's Hamburger—15� a throw in those halcyon days. Shortly afterward, Lasater and Wiese and a third partner, Charles Kleptz, an architect, got the simple idea that was to make them rich: a fast-steak place based on McDonald's fast-hamburger concept. They called it Ponderosa, charged $1.39 for a steak dinner and capitalized it with $5,000 from Wiese, inasmuch as "Norm was still the only one of us with any money." This situation was shortly to be remedied.

"Well, it worked," Lasater says, "and so we ran it up a little. We built another and another, and then it just grew and grew. We woke up one morning and it was on the New York Stock Exchange. Pretty soon after that it was selling 70 times earnings, and in a while I was starting to set chunks over in the corner." The chunks to which he refers were of cash. Lasater's early Ozark background was not submerged altogether in Indiana, and he still speaks with both the flavor and the courtliness of the South. He says, for example, "in a Ju-ly minute" when he means right away, and he employs "ma'am" assiduously, even when he is trying to pick somebody up. The latter disarms a mere male bystander; it apparently works wonders when directed at a member of the opposite sex by the trim, well-mannered, blue-eyed, young, divorced multimillionaire.

Lasater became executive vice-president in charge of the Ponderosa operation ("I know my limitations"), and then he got pretty much bored with the whole thing. He got out and found himself looking around for something to do with himself and his chunks for the next 40 or 50 years. Around that time he ran into his old school buddy Fernung, who notwithstanding a droll and genial disposition fancies himself a roly-poly version of the Angel Lucifer. For reasons that are not clear, Lasater has the same feeling toward lean and hungry men that Caesar had, and keeps about him sleek, round fellows, or "big 'uns," as he refers to them.

The rotund Fernung, a racing buff, introduced Lasater to the track, and soon they had a little operation known as the L & F Stable. It claimed a few muskrats at a place called Beulah Park. More important, Fernung—who left the outfit recently, amiably, to strike out on his own—also brought Lasater and David Vance together. "I'm not in the horse business, I'm in the people business," Lasater always says to explain things, and Vance turned out to be a major people acquisition.

Vance comes from Logansport, Ind., the other side of Kokomo, and he and Lasater had known each other slightly growing up. Thirty-four now, Vance is the son of a trainer, R. E. Vance; he was a jockey as a small boy ("We used to race around them Illinois bushes"). At 14 he was the second-leading rider at a meet in Las Vegas. His future as a rider was hampered by his burgeoning size, which is now 6'1" and, as the weathermen say, somewhere in the mid-to-upper 200s. Vance looks a little like Hoss, late of Bonanza, as a matter of fact, and mornings he wears chaps and a formless dome hat to abet that impression. Taciturn and distant, he spits a great deal of tobacco as the day wears on.

Along about the time that the L &. F Stable came into existence, Vance was just another struggling young trainer, working the bushes at places like the Deetroit Race Course. When the DRC meeting closed late in 1970, he decided to try the new track in Philly, Liberty Bell. Tricky Fischer, the outfit's assistant general manager, remembers Vance's situation very well.

Tricky is bigger than Big John, or even Vance, for that matter, and since he usually wears a small pair of dark glasses and a cagey smile, he looks like a giant raccoon on the loose. His father is a doctor who owns horses, and Tricky graduated from the University of New Mexico, but times were not real good for him, either, in the winter of '70-'71 when he left Sportsman's Park in Chicago for Liberty Bell, where he had a job as a track official. That illustrates, he says, as he begins his account of all this, how desperate racetracks were for officials at that particular time.

"But I'll tell you how bad it was for David," Tricky says, "because I come into Liberty Bell myself that time just before he did, and he was broker'n me and he had a wife and a kid and a baby and one more on the way. What a Cinderella story this is.

"I had $13 when I left Sportsman's, but I was too proud to call my parents. It was freezing cold and there was chewing gum all over the front seat because I'd had this girl in the car not long before, and when I made a move after her, she took her gum out and just sort of stuck it there, and soon, the way things were, it got spread all over the front seat. By the time I get to Ohio it's a blizzard outside, with the chewing gum inside, and by Pittsburgh the snow is butt high to a tall Apache. I slid sideways acrost most of Pennsylvania.

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