Dave Palone, right, shares a laugh with fellow driver Mike Wilder, center, and his friend Tim Caputo.
Dave Palone, center, driving Smartiscape (5), tries to hold onto his position in the pack of horses during a June race at The Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Washington.
By Pohla Smith Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Very soon, probably in the next few days, Meadows harness racing driver Dave Palone will become North America's all-time wins leader, breaking Herve Filion's record of 15,180 victories.
Palone, 50, had 15,173 victories after Monday's racing card at The Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Washington County, his home oval.
What has enabled the Hall of Fame driver to win so many times over a 30-year career and be on the verge of breaking a mark that has stood for 41 years?
Ron Burke, a leading trainer at The Meadows and Palone's main client, cites his preparation and competitiveness. "[Preparation is] what separates him from any other driver I've seen," Burke said.
Burke recalled a recent race in which Palone drove his 7-year-old gelding Handsome Prince. A horse "flew past him. He was third. [Palone] refused to give up. ... He wills horses to go. ... He just came back and then won. ...
"That's the biggest thing I can say about Dave -- what a competitor he is," Burke added.
Meadows trainer Mark Goldberg, who helped Palone get started by giving him drives, said, "Obviously, he has natural talent, but the thing that makes him stand out among the best of the best, [his] mental toughness and his desire to win are probably unequaled."
Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Takter of The Meadowlands is best known for his trotters, and it is Palone's work with trotters that he praises.
"He won three Breeders Crowns and won with two of my horses," he said. "It takes a good set of hands to work with trotters. All the great drivers have them."
Palone, inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2010, is modest about his talents.
"I think I do some things good, above average. I react pretty quick in a race, and I've always been able to adjust," he said. "I can make a horse go fast."
Palone, as Burke noted, is well-known for his race preparation, for watching races in which he's not driving. But Palone claims he doesn't watch that much when he's at The Meadows because he already knows the horses and the drivers.
"I prepare pretty good when I'm [racing] out of town," he said. That means hours on the Internet, watching race replays to see who's doing what, where, to see if a track is speed-favoring, what part of the track is the best part to race on, "the horses to beat, see if I can pick something up."
Physical fitness is also important. He and his wife, Bethann, a national champion barrel racer, have a trainer who comes to their house a couple of times a week for one-hour workouts with kettlebells. Palone, who rides at 150-155 pounds, also plays golf once or twice a week, swims a little, works on his 10-acre Chartiers Township farm while "chasing" his two younger daughters, Alana, 5, and Sophie, 2. Another daughter, Hannah, is 17.
"I'm probably more fit now at 50 than I ever was. It's paying off," said Palone, who has averaged 532 wins a year over the past two decades. "At 50, I'm probably driving better than ever. ...
"Our drivers' colony is the best it's ever been. I can't afford to let up. When I was younger I could afford to make mistakes and win races. I can't make mistakes and get the job done."
Before each race, Palone said, "I do have a strategy in my head. ... I have plan A, plan B, plan C, sometimes. It all depends on the horse." But, he added, "At least half the time it changes behind the gate. ... I do a lot of reaction behind the gate."
A driver needs to have a stopwatch in his head and avoid burning his horse's speed out too early in the race, he said. "You know where you're going, and that's the biggest edge."
Palone, a native of Waynesburg, said he was 12 or 13 when he decided he wanted to make racing his career.
"I was in 4-H riding horses. My dad bought a couple [harness] horses. I rode to the races with him and I fell in love with it," he said.
Palone persuaded his dad's trainer, the late Herman Hylkema, to let him jog one of his dad's horses and was hooked.
"I loved the animals, just being around them. I loved the competition. I was always into sports," said Palone, who played football and basketball and ran track at Jefferson-Morgan High School. "It was a way that I could compete and be around something I loved. I loved the animals, the speed and the danger."
Hylkema was his mentor, teaching him everything from "the bottom up ... Everything you did with Herman, you did the right way."
Palone "was always enthralled with the driving end," but when he started in 1982, he said, "you had to be a "trainer/driver."
He had 14 drives that first year but no wins. Nevertheless, he said, "It was great. It was different back then. You just took the advice of some of the top drivers: Get in the mix and don't try to be a hero right off the bat. As bad as I was when I started, I got a lot better pretty quick."
On March 15, 1983, he won his first race, in his 24th career drive, with Reds Folly. He was on his way. It was the first of 33 victories that year. Seven years later, on Jan. 13, 1990, he won his 1,000th race with Cagey William at The Meadows.
Eventually Palone gave up training to devote his time to driving. Palone believes he was the first horseman at The Meadows to go strictly to driving without training horses. Now it is more common.
As the record has drawn closer, Palone has looked back.
His memory of the drive he's most proud of is still sharp, though, back nearly seven years, to Sept. 22, 2005 at the Delaware County, Ohio fairgrounds and the Little Brown Jug, probably the most prestigious race for 3-year-old pacing colts and geldings in the world.
"I was probably only the third or fourth choice that day with P-Forty-Seven," he said. "[Trainer] Brett Pelling had a three-horse entry with Brian Sears, Jack Moiseyev and Ronnie Pierce driving for them. It was a real Davey and Goliath story. They were huddled up, talking about what they were going to do. I felt I was out on my own there. We got the job done on a day no one expected us to win with a race on the bucket list. Forty to 50 thousand screaming fans, a horse from Ohio, a race in Ohio, I won it for great friends of mine. It made it extra special."
That's what Palone loves best about driving: winning.
"There's nothing more fun than winning a horse race," he said. "It's still as much fun, winning a race, any kind of race. A stake race or a maiden race."
How long does he think he'll keep trying to win races?
"That's a good question," he said. "I'm afraid walking away I would miss it. There's going to be a time I won't get the mounts and won't be the leading driver. ... If I stay healthy and continue the winning, I can continue five or six years at this level and then back it off and do the Florida thing in the winter [take winters off]."
And when will he know it's time to quit completely?
"That's probably the easiest thing in the world: When you pick up a [overnight racing] sheet and your name's not down as often as it used to be," he said. "If you drive a horse one week and the next week someone else drives and it goes faster, that shows you something right there."