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Monday, September 12, 2005

One Last Mile

- Stanley Dancer, the legendary harness racing trainer/driver who died on Friday at the age of 78 from the accumulated effects of a lifetime of mishaps and injuries suffered on and off the track, drove his first winner at Freehold Raceway in 1945.

"My father said more than once, (that) if he had his wish about retiring, it would end on a racetrack," said Assemblyman and Plumsted Mayor Ronald S. Dancer. "He always said he wanted to be buried in his silks, his driving uniform, and he wanted to take one last drive where he won his first race." [NJ Star Ledger]
After Tuesday’s first race at the afternoon track in the New Jersey town of the same name, in an event I can’t decide is poignant or macabre, a hearse will take the casket around the Freehold oval for “one last mile,” which would mean two trips around.

I can’t imagine that more than a few hundred people turn out at Freehold on a Tuesday afternoon, and those who are not aware of the event in advance (I presume the track will not be promoting the event with ads blaring “Come see one of harness racing’s greatest dead legends”), will be stunned I'm sure to hear of the presence of one of the biggest names in the sport’s history.

Given the list of the injuries Dancer suffered throughout his career, you’d think a little thing like dying wouldn’t stop him from covering the mile propped up in the sulky a la Weekend At Bernie’s.
He survived 32 racing spills, four auto accidents, a helicopter crash and a plane crash. In his driving days, he had two heart attacks. In 1955, he broke his back. In 1973, his right arm started to atrophy from nerve damage sustained in a collision 18 years earlier. In 1988, he broke two bones in his back and tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder. [NY Times]
In 1973, he underwent spinal surgery to repair a fractured vertebra that stemmed from an accident nearly 20 years earlier, and had a heart attack during the operation. [Bloodhorse]

I remember Dancer well from my harness days, especially his exploits with the great pacer Albatross and the trotter Super Bowl. I was at the Hambletonian in 1983 when he won with the filly Duenna, after his beloved colt Dancer’s Crown, which he named after himself, died just weeks before the race in which he would have been the heavy favorite. In the Times article referenced above, Arnold Palmer, of all people, is quoted as calling it “one of the most dramatic moments in sports.”

In reading the various tributes, I learned some things I didn’t know about him. Dancer revolutionized the sport by being the first driver to aggressively seek the lead from whatever post he was in. Before that, the horses apparently plodded around in single file until the home stretch and then raced home in a mad dash. That helped popularize the sport, and Dancer served as an ambassador for it as well.
His photo was splashed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, he defeated former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier in a home run hitting contest and visited The White House in 1968 as a guest of President Lyndon Johnson. [Miami Herald]
Not surprisingly, the Sports Illustrated cover, in which he appeared with his popular trotter Cardigan Bay in 1968, was the last time a harness horseman has been on the front of the mag, and the two also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. [NY Daily News]

After he takes his final laps at Freehold, Dancer, outfitted in his blue and gold silks, will be buried in Maplewood Cemetery in Freehold Township. It’s right across the street from the track.
The grave site "literally overlooks the racetrack," said Ronald Dancer, 56. "You can stand at Dad's grave and hear and watch races."