by Murray Brown
“I’m not quite sure about the exact number right now, You’d have to ask Roger Huston what it is. I’m hoping to reach 20,000 wins by sometime next year. If I get there, a great deal, of course, will depend on my health and outlook. As for right now, I’m 59 and I’m a new grandfather. Thank goodness I’ve still got the hunger and joy that going to the racetrack each day brings. Well maybe not so much on cold and rainy days, but they are still days at the track where a bad day can be better than a good day anywhere else”.
Thus saith harness racing’s all time race winning leader and Hall of Famer Dave Palone in a recent conversation.
Twenty thousand wins! Think about it. Nobody else has ever done it. Nobody has even come close.
Palone’s dad, Butch, was a fan and sometimes owner in the sport. Butch Palone was a car dealer in Washington, PA. It was only natural that when Delvin Miller opened The Meadows that Butch started attending.
Butch would bring his son David along with him. It was instant love for Dave — the racetrack, the horses, the people; everything about the sport that was to become a big part of his life.
Any spare time he had while attending high school was spent at the racetrack. He began by working weekends for anyone for whom he could be of help. He’d pick up paddocks, as well.
His first job was as a groom for well-known horseman Herman Hylkema who maintained a stable at The Meadows.
“I couldn’t possibly have had a better teacher or role model than Herman. He was a great horseman. He was known as sometimes being a difficult taskmaster. Everything had to be just right. There was no skimping. There was only one way, that was Herman’s way. After all, he went to school at the alter of Howard Beissinger, one of the most rigid taskmasters in the history of the sport. As long as you did it Herman’s way, you’d be fine.”
Dave recalls jogging his first horse at the Waynesburg Fairgrounds as a teenager.
His dad bought him his first few horses to train and he used catch drivers.
Butch Palone had a box at The Meadows. In the neighboring box was an owner and fan by the name of Mike Demaria. Demaria took a liking to young Dave Palone and bought him a couple of horses for his small stable which then consisted entirely of claimers.
Dave started driving, initially with the horses in his own small stable and then with some success came the opportunity to catch drive.
His first big break came from trainer Mark Goldberg who then, as now, had a good-sized stable at The Meadows.
Dave was in the claiming game and claimed a few from Goldberg. Mark approached him with a proposition.
“I’ll make a deal with you. You stop claiming horses from me and I’ll put you down to drive the horses in my stable.”
That was a deal that Palone couldn’t turn down. Here he was in his early 20s when he became first call for one of the more successful stables at the racetrack.
Success with the Goldberg horses led to more success and within a relatively short time he became the leading driver at The Meadows.
It became something that hasn’t changed much, if at all, for over the last 30 plus years.
Shortly, he gave up training, although, he has always been on call for those who have patronized him for advice or for training one that needs help.
As time went on, not only was he patronized by the trainers at The Meadows, but word had gone out about this nice kid at The Meadows who was part horse himself.
When there were stakes races being held at the track, it wasn’t unusual for David to be put down on several, sometimes even the majority of those in a race.
I think that there are many who consider you a one-track cowboy. Sure, the overwhelming number of your wins have taken place at The Meadows. What few realize is that you also have many Grand Circuit wins on your resume. You have shown time and again that you were able to compete everywhere, whether it be Lexington, Delaware, Ohio, Canada or at other tracks in Pennsylvania.
“I suppose it is what it is. On the one hand, I certainly don’t think that I am the greatest driver that ever lived, but on the other, I’m far from the worst. If I had the right horse, I don’t think I’ve often embarrassed myself. I’ve won a Jug, two Jugettes, three Breeders Crowns, an Adios — with many seconds — and perhaps the one thing I am most proud of 40 Pennsylvania Sires Stakes finals.”
What do you attribute most of your success to?
“I like to think that I work hard in the sense that I believe that I am very competitive and well prepared. I watch replays. I know the horses as well as I am able to. I think I am a good communicator. I speak with and listen to the people for whom I drive. If I am able to add any insight to a horse I am more than happy to do so.”
More often than not, you are down to drive more than one horse in a race. How do you go about making your choices?
“It’s not all that difficult. I try to be as loyal as I possibly can. If the Burkes have me down behind one, that’s almost always the one I’m going to drive. I try to drive my brother Mike’s horses as often as I can. Otherwise, I’ll generally go with the horse I think has the best shot.
“When it comes to stakes racing, there are some like Jimmy Takter, Chuck Sylvester, Linda Toscano, Brett Pelling and George Segal/Myron Bell affiliated horses, I’ll go with those. These are people with whom I’ve built a relationship over the years. It goes without saying that the horses are competitive, otherwise they wouldn’t have shipped them out here.”
You’ve been driving at the very top of your profession for more than 35 years. That is one incredible accomplishment.
“I consider myself to be very, very lucky. I’ve driven with several generations of great drivers. I started in the tail end years of the Herve, Haughton, Dancer and Sholty eras. Then I drove with the John Campbells, Bill O’Donnells, Ronnie Pierces, Mike Lachance and others. Right here at The Meadows, I’ve driven regularly with Brian Sears, David Miller, Georgie Brennan and Dickie Stillings. We’ve now got some amazing talent out there with Yannick, Timmy, Dexter Dunn, the McCarthy brothers and our own iron man Aaron Merriman. Right here at The Meadows, we’ve got two kids who I believe have the “IT” factor in Drew Monti and Hunter Myers. I’d be surprised if they aren’t at or near the top shortly.”
Here’s an unfair question: Will you rate those guys?
“That’s not easy, but I’ll try to compartmentalize them. Overall, and for a career, you’d have to go with John Campbell. The numbers prove it. He’s accomplished more than any driver in history. For a given period of time, I’d say Billy O. At his best, Bill O’Donnell really earned his title of the Magic Man. Maybe the most talented driver ever is Brian Sears. If he had the extreme competitive spirit of a John Campbell or even myself, he could have done everything. He’s a horse’s best friend — always kind to one on the racetrack. His ideal race would probably be: get away mid pack; work out a second over trip and win only by all it took without using the whip. He’s one of the few great drivers out there who may realize there is more to life than harness racing. The greatest instinctive driver ever, Ronnie Pierce. He is probably the only one who would have driven Art Official in the way it took to beat Somebechsomewhere. For me the greatest combination of a great driver, a great horseman and a wise man is Mike Lachance. I could sit and listen to that man for hours.”
How about trainers?
“There are so many great ones that I’ve been privileged to drive for. Of course, I’d have to start with Mickey and Ronnie Burke. I’ve driven for them for decades. I’ve probably driven more races for just them than some drivers have driven in a lifetime. Then of course there’s Jimmy Takter, Bob McIntosh, Chuck Sylvester, Linda Toscano, Gene Riegle, Ronnie Gurfein, Joe Holloway and I’m sure a good many that I’ve left off.
“One of the greatest trainers that I didn’t drive for is Dickie Stillings, right here at The Meadows. The obvious reason is that he drove for himself and was pretty darn good at it. From a small number of low to mid-priced horses he developed numerous champions.”
Something that I’m sure you’ve been asked is why you haven’t given The Meadowlands a shot?
“In fact, I did give it a shot, perhaps not a long enough shot, but I did give it a try. I really didn’t do that bad either. There were several issues that brought me back home to The Meadows. Charlie Ginsburg gave me several horses to train and drive and we did reasonably well in New Jersey. My problem was twofold. The first was I got homesick. I had trouble adjusting to big city life. The second was that my nature is of being a very competitive person. Those were the glory days of Campbell, O’Donnell and Lachance. Guys like Ronnie Pierce had the patience to wait it out, realizing that the multitude of drives would eventually come. I didn’t. I had problems with being down on just one or a few drives a night.”
You told me that one of the benefits of going there was in making a lifelong friendship with the late Scott Abolafia, AKA Scotty Tickets.
“If one is extremely lucky, one is fortunate to have at least one friend like Scotty. Very few people in this life of ours have enjoyed and loved harness racing more than he did. He was known as the Commissioner of Freehold Raceway. After I went back to The Meadows we’d talk every single day, often as many as three or more times a day. I’d love to watch and listen to his discussions with Myron. There are very few who might occasionally get the best of Myron in an argument. Scotty was one of those.”
Speaking of late, great friends Mr. Ed (Ed Mullinax) was a dear friend of both of us.
“There was never anybody, nor will there ever be anybody, like Ed. He was one of the greatest human beings to ever inhabit this planet. I have no idea how many horsemen he helped out, but they were many in number. He was like Will Rogers. He never met a person he didn’t like and perhaps even more so those who didn’t like him. There are so many Mister Ed stories. It was the greatest privilege imaginable for me to win the Little Brown Jug for him with P Forty Seven. It was the thrill of a lifetime for both him and me. Ed’s mind was always on one speed – fast. Sometimes his brain wouldn’t keep up with it. He’d be speaking of something and then change topics without you knowing he had. He loved the business and those in it fortunate enough to have known and loved him.”
Dave, you said you are looking for win number 20,000. Barring anything unforeseen, it won’t be too long before you reach that goal. What comes next?
“To be absolutely truthful, I don’t really know. I find it difficult to visualize life without driving horses. I’m sure I will slow down. Not necessarily because I want to, but rather because Mother Nature and Father Time are and always will be undefeated. I’m going on 60. I’m not the driver that I was in my 30s and 40s. But I believe that I am still quite competitive on the racetrack. There are so many great, young and some not so young drivers out there — maybe now more than ever at a given period of time. I hope I know when I become non-competitive and am able to make the decision myself.”
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