Harness racing and Dave Palone ... the Gait to Greatness

He is a husband, a father and a farmer. But in a sulky at The Meadows or most any other harness racing track in America, this smallish 47-year-old is a veritable giant.

On April 10, 2007, Dave Palone shattered his upper right femur in a harness racing accident at his home track, The Meadows. The doctor who surgically rebuilt the driving star's leg with a metal rod and screws told him he would be out for at least three months. He was back in the sulky in seven weeks.

It wasn't his first bone-breaking accident and it wouldn't be the last. Nor would it be the first or last time he ignored medical opinion and common sense to get on with the job of winning more races than anyone else in North America over the past 20 years.

"I'm stubborn, greedy," Palone said in a recent interview.

Perhaps that's true. But those personality traits don't begin to provide a complete description of the courage, work ethic, sportsmanship, intelligence and athleticism that have made him a 2009 nominee for election to his sport's Living Hall of Fame.

Consider, for example, the mental and physical efforts he put in when he went down in another accident about five months after he had shattered his thigh. This time, it was on a muddy track at Scioto Downs in Columbus, Ohio, the night before he was scheduled to drive some prestigious Grand Circuit stakes races at The Red Mile in Lexington, Ky.

"I landed on my leg," Palone said to his wife, Bethann, when she came running out onto the track to check on him. Gingerly, he got to his feet, and, he reported with relief, "I think I'm OK."

Timeline of Dave Palone's journey into harness racing history
Dec. 1982 Drives first race.
Jan. 1983 Wins first race, with Red's Folly.
Jan. 6, 1990 Wins 1,000th career race, at age 27, aboard Cagey Williams, at The Meadows
March 26, 1992 Wins 2,000th career race, at age 30, aboard Jenna Mattios.
Feb. 11, 1994 Inducted into Pittsburgh Sports Hall of Fame, two days before his 32nd birthday.
April 15, 1997 Wins 5,000th career race, at age 35, with the horse Know How. Is sixth youngest driver to hit the milestone.
Aug. 14, 1999 Wins first Adios Pace, with Washington VC.
Nov. 27, 2004 At age 42, wins 10,000th career race, with Kris-A-Character, becoming the fourth driver -- and second youngest -- in North American harness racing history to do so.
July 13, 2006 At age 44, wins 11,000th career race, with Mr Shakedown.
Feb. 15, 2008 Becomes the third and, at age 46, the youngest driver in North America harness racing history to win 12,000 races, with Eagle Hilarious.
Oct. 14, 2008 Wins 500th career stakes race, with Buckeye Nation, in a division of the Keystone Classic for freshmen colt pacers at The Meadows.
Dec. 15, 2008 Surpasses $70 million mark in career earnings.
May 4, 2009 At age 47, above right, he becomes third driver and youngest in history to score his 13,000th career victory, with Western Kissed in the 11th race at The Meadows.
Statistics from Post-Gazette archives and the U.S. Trotting Association

But then he tried lifting the arms with which he holds 1,000-pound horses traveling at 30 mph. The left one went up OK, but when he tried to lift his dominant right arm -- the one in which he carries his whip -- "it was like someone was stabbing me."

He told Bethann he thought he had broken his shoulder.

And so he had, though no one in harness racing except his wife was any the wiser for quite some time.

Palone, then 45, finished his driving commitments at Scioto on a Saturday night, then went to Lexington. "I didn't want to miss those horses," he said. "I'd worked so hard all year to get them ready for the races."

His arm hurt mightily, but he had "a really good night" racing Sunday. Come Monday, the pain was so intense he couldn't travel home to Washington County. Instead he went to a Lexington hospital, where X-rays revealed a fracture to the shoulder end of the humerus, the long bone of the arm.

With more Grand Circuit races and the world famous Little Brown Jug at the Delaware County (Ohio) Fair just a couple of weeks off, the fracture became the Palones' little secret.

"He said, 'Well, I'm driving with this,' " Bethann said. "We never told anybody."

He wore a sling around the house, where his wife, an occupational therapist who had learned some basic physical therapy from colleagues, oversaw icing and range of motion exercises, and massaged the arm three times a day. Palone kept driving. And he kept on winning.

"He's got the heart of a gladiator," said Mark Goldberg, a trainer who helped Palone get started at The Meadows a quarter-century ago. "If he was a different size [he's 5 feet 91/2, about 155 pounds] he could have been a linebacker in pro football. I've personally been on the racetrack when he's been thrown to the ground and in pain you couldn't believe and it never stopped him. He was right back out there. When it comes to heart in that way, he not only has great talent but his will to win. He won't come out of the game no matter the pain.

"That's an incredible thing on a guy who only goes 155 pounds. Pound for pound, he's as tough as they come. He's got that warrior mentality and that's what separated him [from other drivers] and, knock on wood, ... he will be the winningest driver in racing."

Palone, who also has had a broken back, a broken left shoulder and bruised lung over the years, is the third-winningest driver in North American history with 13,158 victories through July 16. Ranked ahead of him are 69-year-old Herve Filion with 15,177 wins through July 16, and 59-year-old Cat Manzi with 13,372 through the same date. But Palone, 47 and the winningest driver of the 1990s as well as over the past 20 years, is getting victories at a faster rate than Filion and Manzi. Only 593 days passed between his 10,000th and 11,000th wins; 582 days separated his 11,000th and 12,000th victories; and a mere 444 days went by between his 12,000th and 13,000th wins.

In 2008, he scored a personal-best 885 victories and raced a total of 243 days, only 11 of them winless.

In harness racing, a driver's success also is measured in a kind of weighted batting average that takes into account firsts, seconds and thirds divided by number of starts. It is called the UDRS -- universal drivers' ratings. Palone's career UDRS through July 16 is an incredible .402.

He has no immediate plans for retirement as long as he can stay healthy enough to get in the bike.

He jokes that he can't afford to anyway -- not with two daughters, Hannah, 14, and Alana, 2, and a third child on the way in late September. But, in reality, he loves the horses and the racing too much to quit.

"I'm very competitive, whether it's horses or golf [he has a 6-handicap]," Palone said. "I've always been competitive like that in high school with sports and stuff." A Waynesburg native, he played football and basketball and ran track at Jefferson-Morgan High School.

"[Being able to compete] is what I love so much. Horse racing, it's something I can do even now, and I can compete at the top level. How many sports can you do that?

"I think I'm driving at probably the highest level I ever have, maybe the complete top of my game," Palone said matter-of-factly as he sat pool-side on his farm in Chartiers Township, Washington County.

"I'm a way more patient driver. I feel that in big races I have a huge edge. I don't want to say I don't get nervous ever -- everybody gets nervous. If I didn't get nervous, I wouldn't be good at all, I wouldn't want to drive again. But it's like you're driving a car: You have a calm about you, where I know early in my career I'd make myself almost sick thinking about a big race.

"Now things that are important are your family and your health and stuff like that. Though you may want to win, it's not going to make a big difference in the whole scheme of things. It's just a horse race."

Don't let that last statement make you think that Palone, who "got hooked" on harness horses and racing as the teenage son of an owner, brings a casual attitude to the game. Nor is he content to rely on what Goldberg calls his great, almost extrasensory ability to communicate with horses.

He still finds sleep elusive after an off-night -- "It sticks with him. It takes him at least a couple hours to get over it, sometimes a whole night to get over it," Bethann said.

He also puts in a lot of time studying the horses he's going to drive and the horses he's going to face. On race nights, any time he's not on the track racing or warming up, he's watching other horses warming up or watching a replay of his most recent performance. Away from the track, he also spends countless hours on the computer researching any horse that might cross his path. "Since the Internet, we have access to videos of the horses, what they cost as yearlings, stuff like that, where in the past you kind of had to take a trainer's word for it," he said.

"You can ask him about any horse racing [at any track], any of the Grand Circuit horses, even a 10-claimer, and he knows that horse inside and out," said Bethann, the daughter of longtime Meadows trainer/driver Bill Zendt and herself a national champion barrel racer. As a result, she said, many people call to seek his opinion about horses they're thinking of buying.

Palone said the trainers who name him on their horses deserve that kind of effort. "They spend all week with these horses, seven days a week, working on them to get them ready for the race, and the least I can do as their driver is be prepared for the race."

The trainers appreciate it, too. "He respects trainers, one of the few in the sport that do," said Jimmy Takter, a New Jersey-based trainer who uses Palone frequently on horses he ships into Pennsylvania for stakes.

"He's a good guy to work with. He's a great talent, a great fellow to be around."

Palone puts in additional hours swimming, running, working out at a local gym and doing farm work in order to stay physically fit. "I'm probably in the best shape of my life," he said.

"My leg still bothers me, my broken shoulder still bothers me, but I'm telling you I feel like I'm in good shape. I can hold a horse as well as I ever could physically, and mentally, I don't feel like I've lost a step. I really don't, despite all the injuries."

Palone cites his student-like preparation for the races as one of his strengths as a driver. The other, he said, is an on-track versatility.

"Some guys have to win on the lead. Some guys are known for their closing ability," he said. "I think I can win from any part of the race track."

Preparations aside, there is a huge natural talent, the one that Goldberg said you could see in Palone from the very start. It's that ability to communicate with animals, and it's visible even when Palone is playing fetch with his blue heeler, handling his wife's and older daughter's barrel racers, or even making nice with his neighbor's cows.

"There's something about certain people, especially when you're dealing with animals, who can train dogs, who can train horses, and with drivers there's something like an extrasensory perception that they can communicate with horses better than others do," Goldberg said. "He has it. ... He can get them to do what you expect them to do. He's at the top of the list."

Pohla Smith can be reached at psmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1228. First Published July 19, 2009 4:00 AM


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