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Sandy Treadwell
May 18, 1981
The great harness horseman, Stanley Dancer, has had his ups and downs. Now he has a barnful of burners ready to go for the classic races
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May 18, 1981

Back In The Driver's Seat Again

The great harness horseman, Stanley Dancer, has had his ups and downs. Now he has a barnful of burners ready to go for the classic races

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"Rachel tells me that he'll get up in the middle of the night and go over and over a race," says Woolworth. "He'll have it all figured out—who'll be where, all the possibilities. He's ready for almost anything. Except disappointment. Disappointment just destroys him."

Few races have been more crushing to Dancer than last year's Woodrow Wilson Pace for 2-year-olds at the Meadowlands, the world's richest horse race, offering a $2 million purse. French Chef was favored to win, but almost immediately, one of the colt's legs hit a sulky wheel and he broke gait. Dancer took him outside, got him back on gait, passed several horses and took the lead. But in the last quarter mile, he tired and failed to qualify, finishing in fifth place. Dancer looked shocked, embarrassed and humiliated, all at the same time. Then he did something that startled those who didn't know him. He began whistling.

At about this time last year, Dancer had placed French Chef near the bottom of his talent list. The colt was a trotter by inclination and was slow to learn the pacing gait. But he improved every time he was worked. Dancer shipped French Chef off to his juvenile season believing he was "a pretty good horse." But Dancer quickly learned that French Chef was capable of producing three separate bursts of speed during a mile. He won his first 10 races before the Woodrow Wilson and, following it, raced 12 times and lost only once. During one three-week period, French Chef set 2-year-old world records on tracks measuring a mile (1:54), a half mile (1:57[4/5]) and five-eighths of a mile (1:56[1/5]).

Meanwhile, Dancer had Smokin Yankee, his trotter, racing to 13 victories in 20 starts, including a world record on a five-eighths-mile track (2:00[1/5]). Then there were the two fillies, Panty Raid and Filet of Sole, both of which tied Impish's 19-year-old mile-track record (1:58[3/5]).

"Last year was very satisfying for my father." says Ronnie. "People had kind of written him off. Our sport is like any other. If you don't win big, you're finished."

Dancer's last Hambletonian winner had been Bonefish in 1975, his last Horse of the Year Keystone Ore in 1976. Since then Dancer hasn't won a single Triple Crown event at either gait. There were rumors that he was in poor health. Perhaps his body was, at last, wearing down.

His driving ability was also questioned by both horsemen and spectators. Dancer was too eager to go to the front, it was said; too proud to rate his horses; too concerned about his image as one of the sport's elder statesmen. There was talk that his hands had lost their touch. "I'd hear people saying, 'Don't bet on Dancer, he doesn't have it anymore,' " says Woolworth. "The problem wasn't with Stanley, it was with the owners. We weren't giving him good horses. Now he has them again. All that talk has gone away."

Dancer checks his watch. It's time for a publicity photo. He puts the blood reports aside and leaves his office. He leads French Chef from his stall and out to a grass runway where a small group has assembled: Allen Finkelson, the P.R. director of Pompano Park; track photographer Dan Gawlas and Jean-Pierre Bolline, head chef at The French Place restaurant in Pompano Beach. Finkelson's idea is to pose a French chef with French Chef. Typically, Dancer has agreed to the gimmick. "The sport has done so much for me, I have always done everything I'm asked to do to help promote it," he says.

He has also suffered a good deal of embarrassment in the spotlight's glare. Stanley Dancer once sat for photographers in Mamma Leone's restaurant in New York while Jayne Mansfield giggled on his lap. He terrified Pearl Bailey when he led Cardigan Bay onstage during The Ed Sullivan Show. He taught Mike Douglas and actor Martin Landau how to drive sulkies at Philadelphia's Liberty Bell Park, and then watched them tear off out of control in different directions. During a 1968 state dinner at the White House, he asked Arthur Ashe what he planned to do after college.

Now Dancer places an outsized toque over French Chefs ears. The horse stands quietly next to Bolline for a moment, eyeing his human counterpart. Then the horse attempts to bite Bolline on the neck. The pictures are taken quickly. "I think the horse would like to cook me," says Bolline.

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