Whatever happens to the economy, whether it gets worse or even a little bit better, it is going to be a month of Sundays before we see anything like the '60s again. You could run it up a little then. Growth was phenomenal, stocks go-go and, because everything performed, the best things had to outperform; a man in the '60s could still borrow on an idea, cash in on a dream and wind up with money in the bank. Dan Lasater, all of 32 now, may be the last of the breed. Sweeping up at a McDonald's in Kokomo, Ind. in 1960 at the age of 17, he became a fast-food monarch within five years. Then, at 28, he retired and today, a few years after he saw his first horse race, he is setting records as the leading thoroughbred owner of all time.
With 494 wins in 2,105 races, Lasater's stable earned $3,020,521 in 1974, nearly double the previous mark, winning at tracks all over the country in all types of races. He raced horses, bred them, bought and sold them, a full-service juggernaut the likes of which racing had never seen. Yet while he was breaking new ground and records in a hidebound sport that does not usually cotton to brash youth, his stable—an outfit, everybody calls that sort of organization around the tracks—managed to succeed without offending Establishment sensitivities.
"This is a business to us," Lasater says. "I think that's one of the reasons why we're so successful. Why, there's other people come into racing with something like $3 million, and they hire some society trainer they wouldn't let run a tractor in their real business. I like horses, but I don't want to get sentimental about them. I like to make money more, and this is one way to make money."
At The Jockey Club such commercial admissions would normally be considered crass, but Lasater speaks in subdued backwoods tones, so that even his bad grammar is a charming asset. While he can raise all kinds of hell with his buddies in his outfit, he is retiring and self-effacing at the track. Most men who come out of nowhere to strike it rich become condescending and require the gaudy trappings of wealth to reassure themselves of their new status. But Lasater just drifts along, unaffected, somewhere having acquired the most agreeable of patrician instincts.
He is a pretty simple fellow, preferring the company of his friends or, even more, that of fine-looking women. Other special tastes are Crown Royal whiskey—seems like just about everybody in the outfit now drinks Crown Royal—and rock music, from whose lyrics Lasater derives the names of his horses (Hot 'n' Nasty, Honky Star). Instead of hotel suites, Lasater rents houses with the other guys. He is a charitable boss, effusive with praise. His grooms call him Dan, and he enjoys hanging around the track kitchen, shooting the breeze and flirting with the girls. Understand, he's nobody's fool, but he does have a reputation as a soft touch. He's not going to buy any hard sell, or the Brooklyn Bridge, but a little whimsy will do the trick.
One morning a while ago, at Oaklawn, in Arkansas, an old backstretch character named Uncle Otto came up to Lasater and tried to separate a ten from him with an especially fetching report of a hot tip. Lasater carries two rolls, the one a Mardi Gras, just singles and fives and maybe tens, the other containing the real long green. It was to that pocket he reached, and skimmed off a hundred for the old guy. "Run it up a little," he said, giving the C-note to Uncle Otto.
So what the classic old racing types say, as Lasater beats them again and again, is that he is a nice young man, good for racing. This month, in fact, he is to be presented with the prestigious Eclipse Award for being the outstanding owner in racing in 1974. In turn, Lasater, for all his harsh dollars-and-cents declarations, finds racing good for him. While he is, obviously, one of those rare people who have a talent for making money, Lasater is beguiled by the track. "I'm there every morning at 6:30 just to watch 'em train, because I love 'em. I love this business. I love the people. I just love it all."
At the track, Lasater seems to have found again the small town he grew up in. Why do you think so many people are drawn to a track, work around it, never leave it? Because they like horses? Aw, come on. Even for those who adore the animals, they are just the raw material, more lovable, perhaps, than the pineapples of Hawaii or the anthracite of West Virginia, but incidental products just the same. It is the community that holds the people. The backside of a racetrack is the most dependable, structured place left on a discombobulated globe. It moves with a cadence all its own, unaffected by geography or dialect or the intrusions of the real world just beyond the gates. It is one of the last set pieces, one where all the people take their assigned places and all the events move inexorably—the way it used to be in real small towns.
Dan Lasater's town was Sharpsville, in north central Indiana, and it is a reasonable enough facsimile of the backside. His high school pal John Fernung, the principal's son at Sharpsville High, says the town had a grocery store, a liquor store, a pool hall and an American Legion hall. "No movie theater. Hell, we were lucky to have a gas station." Just a few miles down Route 26 is Fairmount, a similar place, where James Dean grew up a few years before Lasater and went off to Hollywood to become the last farm-boy idol before America moved, hook, line and sinker, to the suburbs.
Young Dan left no mark upon the town he grew up in, but he had little opportunity. His family had come north from Searcy, Ark. when he was nine, when Mr. Lasater could no longer scratch out a living from the worn-out soil. He was on his way to the automobile factories of Flint, Mich, but stopped to see an old friend in Kokomo; he found a plant hiring there, and so the family moved down to Sharpsville. For the next 10 years, until he married at 19, Dan, his older brother Don and their parents lived in an 8' x 24' trailer; there often was not enough food to go around. "We were some kind of poor," Lasater says. And yet he is reluctant to discuss his growing up for fear it will reflect unfavorably upon his parents, to whom he is devoted. He cannot see that the remarkable success of their son speaks a great deal for his mother and father.