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Dancer spent his childhood in the farmland of south central New Jersey. He was the fifth and youngest son of James Dancer, a potato grower whose crops often failed. "We moved every year," says Stanley. "My father could never make the rent, so we kept getting pushed off our farms. I grew up hating the idea of owing money. Everything I've ever owned—my planes, boats, houses—I've paid for with cash."
Young Stanley also disliked the idea of going to school, and he played hooky frequently and ardently. He preferred staying at home, helping his father milk the cows and plow the fields behind a team of horses. James Dancer enjoyed hitching horse to cart and engaging in informal match races on country roads. Three of his sons, Harold, Vernon and Stanley, eventually became successful trainer-drivers. Stanley first rode on a sulky at age five. Harold, 15 years his senior, frequently took him to watch harness races at local fairs. When Stanley was 12 years old, he and Harold traveled to Goshen, N.Y. to see the Hambletonian, the sport's premiere race. Stanley was dazzled.
Dancer graduated from The Clarksburg School in 1942, when he was 15 years old, receiving his eighth-grade diploma on the condition that he not return to try high school. "I was a terrible-student." he says. "They were glad to get rid of me. A few years ago a woman came up to me and gave mc a framed copy of my class picture. She told me that she had been one of my teachers. She was prouder of me than I was of her. She was drunk."
Graduation day turned into a tragic one for the family. "My brother Thomas went to a party and never came back," Dancer says. "Late that night we learned that he had drowned in the Delaware River. I was never crazy about water in the first place, but for years after that I stayed as far away from it as I could."
Dancer secures Most Happy Fella and walks past his swimming pool and into his four-bedroom, white-stucco house. (Back home in New Egypt, N.J. he has a 136-acre spread that includes a private training track.) "I could retire anytime I want," he says, "but what would I do, play golf? Training and driving horses is all the hobby I need. It's all I ever knew about or cared about.
"Right now is just like spring training; I'm getting the horses ready. My goal this year is to have Norman Woolworth win the Triple Crowns at both trotting and pacing. A little luck should do it. French Chef and Smokin Yankee just have to stay healthy and sound. So do I. When you have horses like these, it's easy to forget the aches and pains. At the end of each day, I can't wait for my next ride behind them."
In the summer of 1973 Dancer contemplated dying because he believed his career had ended. The muscles in his right arm had atrophied, and a numbness in it had become more pronounced—the aftereffects of being trampled in a five-horse crash at Yonkers Raceway in 1955. Before a race at Saratoga 18 years later, he discovered that he couldn't hold the reins. He tried acupuncture without success, and in September 1973 finally agreed to undergo disk surgery in his neck. Four days later he suffered a severe heart attack and was placed on the critical list. While he was recuperating, he was told there was little chance he would be able to drive again, and Dancer became despondent. For a while he was unable to use his arm. "I couldn't button my shirt or even hold a pen," he says. "I began having bad thoughts. I couldn't face the idea of never training or racing." The arm finally responded to therapy, and Dancer returned to his winter training center in Pompano Beach in January 1974 and resumed his career.
The morning after the boat ride with his grandson. Dancer sits on his particular bench alongside the mile training track at Pompano Park. He taps his whip against a post and awaits his favorite horse. At precisely nine o'clock, groom Keith Miller appears with Smokin Yankee. Dancer settles himself onto the sulky and calls out gently, "Come on, boy."
Smokin Yankee won 11 of his first 13 stakes races and $149,605, but then the colt went dull. All last winter he had a cough and veterinarians could find nothing wrong, no explanation, other than his name, for his smoker's hack. At Pompano Park they eventually discovered that one of his vocal cords was paralyzed. The membrane protruded into the larynx, sealing off a portion of his throat. The horse was shipped to the New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania, an equine Mayo Clinic, and the air passage was cleared. When he returned to Miller's care six weeks later, Smokin Yankee was 75 pounds underweight and. Miller said, "For the first time since I've known him, he didn't feel like playing."
"Here he comes," says Miller. The horse moves along the rail, sweat making his bay coat shine, his knees pumping high in a perfect gait. Dancer's enjoyment is as obvious as the colt's new fitness. He is singing a Humperdinck hit to the horse. "Please release me." he sings, "let me gooooooo."