As of June 20, Dave Palone had 15,152 career wins, good for second place in North American harness racing history and pulling him within 29 victories of breaking the all-time mark. Herve Filion holds the record, with 15,180.
When he steered Boo’s Boy to triumph in the 10th race on Tuesday, March 26, at The Meadows, Dave Palone was certainly ruminating upon piloting his 15,000th winner. Only one other North American driver has reached that milestone. But rather than reflect on his own accomplishment, the 2010 Harness Hall of Fame inductee honored the man who set the standard.
As the duo proceeded to the winners’ circle, Palone stood straight up on the seat of his race bike in deference to 72 year-old Herve Filion, the first member of the 15,000 club, who made this posture famous during his esteemed career in the sulky and just happened to be on hand to witness the occasion.
“I did that as a tribute to my hero here,” Palone said to track announcer Roger Huston on that day. “I’ve never done that before. It was like water skiing. I can’t tell you how happy I am. I knew my family was here and I saw management here and to know this guy (Filion) was here, I didn’t want to let him down.”
Still residing in his hometown of Waynesburg, PA, Palone has won or shared the Harness Tracks of America’s Driver of the Year Award on six occasions: 2009, 2008, 2004, 2003, 2000 and 1999. He was the sport’s leading driver in 2004, 2000 and 1999 and has won at least 532 races annually since 1992, which no other North American driver has yet to achieve. He has been among the top four drivers 19 out of the last 20 years in quantity of wins and is currently the second leading driver on the continent behind only Tim Tetrick for conquests this year with 304.
The 50-year-old, who competed in track and field, football and basketball at Jefferson-Morgan High School, frequents the fairway when he isn’t in the sulky or spending time with his family. His resume also includes victories in the Little Brown Jug (P-Forty-Seven, 2005); the Breeders Crown Three-Year-Old Trot (In Focus, 2008); the Breeders Crown Two-Year-Old Pace (Sweet Lou, 2011); the Breeders Crown Two-Year-Old Trot (Uncle Peter, 2011); the Messenger (Go For Grins, 1996); the Jugette (Maudlin Hanover,1999, Numeric Hanover, 2003); the Nadia Lobell (Maudlin Hanover, 1999); the Adios (Washington VC, 1999);the Provincial Cup (Arturo,1997); the Windy City Pace (Arturo, 1997); the Matron (Ultimate Goal, 1992); the Beacon Course (Dontellmenomore, 1991); the Beal Memorial (Dejarmbro, 2011); and the Progress Pace (Westwardho Hanover, 2011).
Although Palone has retained the top spot amongst the driving colony at The Meadows, which must be considered his “home” track, for the last twenty-two consecutive years, there is one more number or accolade to add to his body of work: 15,180. That is the greatest number of wins by any American harness driver, recorded by Filion in 1971, and he is only 29 miles away.
“It’s going to be tough,” Palone told Roger Huston. “I was nervous today; I can’t imagine when I get close (to 15,180). Herve’s always told me, ‘All you need is power, kid.’”
What must have never even existed in the nether regions of Palone’s mind when he stopped training his own string of horses and began to drive full-time 23 years ago, is probably only a few weeks away.
“It’s the Number One topic in horse racing,” Ron Snyder of McDonald, PA told Kaitlynn Riely of the Pittsburgh Press. “Through the years he’s just got better and better.”
Introduced by Father
Palone decided on his general career path shortly after his father, Butch, introduced him to the races Adios Day at the Meadows in 1976. A year later, Palone started working for Herman Hylkema, who conditioned some horses for his father, at the Waynesburg Fairgrounds and by the time he was 18, he was Hylkema’s second trainer.
He then ran his own stable until he was 27 when he decided to devote his attention to catch driving.
“I went to the Waynesburg fairgrounds on weekends during the summer and learned from the bottom up,” Palone recalled. “I cleaned stalls, hot walked and bathed horses and I think I jogged my first horse when I was 13. I fell in love with it, but it took me about five years to apply for a qualifying license and then I went to the fairs first. I’m glad I did that because the fairs are a great background learning process for people that want to become involved in the sport. It’s where I got my start.”
Like a Chess Match
“It (training) was just too much and my true love was driving in races,” he continued. “It’s almost like a chess match. Every race is a different game with different strategies like positioning yourself, knowing when to step on the gas and when to take back. It’s just so much fun and it’s still a great feeling to win races even at this stage of my career. If people tell you it doesn’t mean anything to win anymore, I think they are lying to you. I still enjoy going to the track, maybe not as much on the sloppy, cold, nights, but I still like winning races as much as I did when I was 27, even if they are $5,000 claimers.”
Unlike many other elite reinsmen, Palone, whose wife Beth Ann is trainer/driver Bill Zendt’s daughter and a national champion barrel racer, has never had to practice his profession exclusively on the road and be away for long periods of time from the couples’ three daughters.
“I’ve been fortunate that I’ve never had to leave my family like some of these guys that had to go East,” he said. “I feel bad for them. I know it’s a great opportunity, but I know how hard it would be for me to stay away from my kids day in and day out. I couldn’t imagine coming home from the races and not being with my family. I’ve been very grateful that I have been able to stay in Pennsylvania at The Meadows and be this successful.”
One of the pivotal elements to Palone’s success, besides the tremendous amount of time he invests in researching horses he is on or horses he will be competing against, is his will to reign victorious.
“He’s got the heart of a gladiator,” Mark Goldberg, a trainer that aided Palone in acquiring drives early on, told Pohla Smith at the Pittsburg Post-Gazette. “If he was a different size (5 feet 9 ½ inches and roughly 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 the 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 and knock on wood…he will be the winningest driver in racing.
“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,” he continued. “He has it…he can get them to do what you expect them to do. He’s at the top of the list.”
Misses the Fairs
There is one place Palone wishes he could have spent more time since his career began to thrive.
“I don’t go to the fairs anymore and that is one part of the game that I really miss,” he explained. “I learned a lot there and met a lot of good people. Before I ever drove a horse, I loved going as a groom to take care of and learn about horses. I really cherished my time at the fairs.”
As far as the record goes, the plan is just to keep it simple.
“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,” Palone told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“When I lose the thrill to go to the winners’ circle, I think it will be over but until then, we are having as much fun as we ever did winning races,” he said. “I just hope I break it.”