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A 33-foot Chris-Craft named Most Happy Fella heads slowly up the crowded Intracoastal Waterway between Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach. A Goodyear blimp hovers over a skyline featuring high-rise hotels; the shores are thick with bars, condominiums and ranch houses; cabin cruisers, sailboats and speedboats throng the water. Seated on the flying bridge with his 9-year-old grandson, Ronnie Jr., is Stanley Dancer, steering wheel in one hand, a rum and Coke in the other. He is wearing a yellow bathing suit and purple cap, the latter a gift from one of the owners of the Minnesota Vikings. Sunglasses protect his eyes from the sun's glare, but even so, Dancer, 53, projects intensity.
Dancer emerged as one of harness racing's first modern driving stars in the early '50s and, over the years, became one of its wealthiest. As of the beginning of this month, he had won 3,473 races and nearly $22 million in purses. He was the first driver to win $1 million in a single season (1964) and the trainer-driver of America's first standardbred millionaire (Cardigan Bay. 1968). He is the only trainer-driver to produce three Triple Crown winners: the trotters Nevele Pride (1968) and Super Bowl (1972) and the pacer Most Happy Fella (1970). And as the 1981 season warms up. Dancer may be the keeper of the most remarkable set of standardbreds ever assembled in one racing stable: the pacer French Chef and the trotters Smokin Yankee, Panty Raid and Filet of Sole. They are all 3-year-olds; all set world records as 2-year-olds.
"They were as good a bunch of 2-year-olds as I've seen any one man have in the 50 years I've been around," says trainer-driver Joe O'Brien. Down the track this year are stakes races worth $8.4 million. Says Billy Haughton, Dancer's longtime rival and off-track friend, "French Chef looks like he's the best pacer around. He may be another Niatross. If Smokin Yankee regains his early form of last year, he'll be great, too. On top of them, Stanley has these two great fillies. He may dominate the entire picture this year."
Most Happy Fella glides under a drawbridge, passing two bigger yachts that must wait for the bridge to be raised. "I'll never get a bigger boat than this one," Dancer says. "I couldn't stand to wait for the bridges. I don't have any patience. I like going to shows in Las Vegas—sometimes I'll see three shows a night there—but I won't go unless I have reservations. I hate standing in line. I wouldn't even stand in line to see Engelbert Humperdinck, my favorite Vegas singer."
Ronnie Jr. entertains himself by throwing Planters Cheez Balls off the boat. A flock of sea gulls and one pelican assemble behind Most Happy Fella, picking the food off the water. "Even when I'm at a show I think about horses," says Dancer, ignoring the flight of another Cheez Ball. "I even dream about them; I really do. The only time I get my mind off horses is when I'm flying my plane on instruments."
For years, Dancer had feared flying. He once became alarmed aboard a commercial jet when he saw what he took to be flames coming from one of the plane's engines. Ignoring the reassurances of a stewardess, Dancer demanded an explanation from the pilot, who, recognizing him, said, "How can a man who races behind horses on a tiny sulky seat be afraid of something like this?" Worse still was his ride in a single-engine private plane that took off from a muddy runway in Pennington, N.J. one day in 1965, climbed to 200 feet, stalled and dived prop first to the ground. The impact of the crash knocked out both the pilot and his passenger. "Not my wife in the back of the plane, though. She got us out of there," says Dancer. "It's a miracle that the plane didn't explode." After that he decided he wouldn't leave the driving solely to others. Dancer qualified for a pilot's license in 1972, and now cruises the skies in a Beechcraft Baron E55.
So far Dancer has not wrecked his boat, which is fortunate, because he can't swim. Two years ago he headed Most Happy Fella for his dock during a thunderstorm and was alongside when the batteries went dead. The cruiser began to drift, and its captain abandoned ship, scrambling up a seawall to safety. He stood on the lawn of his home and watched all six tons of Most Happy Fella float off down the canal. Some of the neighbors, working on another boat, lassoed it.
"I could write a book about the crises I've been through on that boat," says Norman Woolworth, a frequent passenger. Woolworth is owner or co-owner of 23 of the 32 horses Dancer now has in training, including all four of the fine 3-year-olds. "Something is always going wrong. As a boat driver, Stanley does fine as long as he's in sight of land. But if he ever ran into fog, there's no telling where he'd wind up—probably in the Bermuda Triangle."
Dancer docks Most Happy Fella without incident. Ronnie runs off, headed for a friend's house. "I'm spoiling that boy," Dancer says. "I must have bought him five bicycles already. When he was born I put $10,000 in a trust fund so he'll be able to buy any kind of car he likes when he's 18. I did the same for my other grandchildren, because I remembered how much I wanted a new car when I was a kid."
These days Dancer can afford to buy his five grandchildren (he has two sons and two daughters) almost anything on land or sea. He owns shares in 13 standardbred stallions, including four great sires: Albatross, Nevele Pride, Most Happy Fella and Super Bowl. In all, Dancer owns 39 annual breedings to them. This year alone, the sales of his unused breedings will bring him an income upwards of $400,000. He estimates his total worth at "less than $20 million, but more than 10.1 have done pretty well for an eighth-grade dropout," he says.