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 $2� 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.