by Evan Pattak
Already harness racing’s “winningest” driver, Dave Palone on Saturday went where no driver has gone before — and quite possibly where no driver ever will go again.
Palone collected career win 20,000 when he piloted Brother Dick to victory in the fourth race at Hollywood Casino at The Meadows.
“Number 20,000 for Dave Palone!” exclaimed Hall of Famer Roger Huston. Although Huston retired as the longtime race caller at The Meadows in 2019, he returned to call the milestone victory at the special request of current track announcer Jeff Zidek, who wanted “The Voice” to be part of this historic moment.
Palone, 60, was joined in a jubilant winners’ circle by his mother Jean; wife Bethann; daughters Hannah, Alana and Sophie; grandson Asher; officials of the United States Trotting Association (USTA), Penn National Gaming (which operates The Meadows) and the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association, as well as dozens of colleagues and fans — including fellow Hall of Famer trainer/driver Dick Stillings.
Too emotional to speak immediately, Palone deferred to Scott Lishia, director of racing for The Meadows, who presented him with a number of gifts to recognize his singular accomplishment. These included including a custom golf bag — with a hidden pocket containing a box of Pop Tarts, Palone’s favorite golf course snack — and an oversized check to pay for a set of custom golf clubs. Most importantly, Lishia said The Meadows paddock will be named for Palone at a ceremony in the near future.
Palone’s achievement was hailed throughout harness racing. Mike Tanner, USTA executive vice president, called it “unprecedented, amazing, incredible.”
“I think we’re running out of superlatives to describe Dave Palone,” Tanner said. “I can’t think of an athlete in any sport who has been so good for so long. Anyone who loves harness racing needs to appreciate this because we’re not going to see it again, at least not in our lifetimes.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Harness Hall of Famer John Campbell, president and CEO of the Hambletonian Society/Breeders Crown and the sport’s all-time leading money-winning driver with nearly $300 million in purses.
“It’s an unfathomable number when you think about it,” Campbell said. “When Herve (Filion) retired, nobody thought anyone else would get to Herve’s total. To go by it by 5,000, a lot of things go into it: keeping the talent level up for all these years; an incredible work ethic; commitment to your craft.”
Palone’s accomplishment is particularly astounding when you consider that the “winningest” Thoroughbred jockey, Russell Baze, retired with 12,842 victories. Moreover, it’s not clear if any harness driver can reach 20,000. Anthony Morgan ranks second with 17,051 wins, but at 64, it isn’t clear that he can roll up enough wins this late in his career. Behind Morgan among active drivers are Aaron Merriman (13,963), David Miller (13,696) and Tim Tetrick (12,863). All would need to continue their extraordinary success for extended periods to reach 20,000. As for passing Palone, forget that, as he likely will continue to pour it on.
As a youngster in his hometown of Waynesburg, PA, Palone was active in the typical pursuits of youth. He played guitar in a rock band and got his first job setting pins at a local bowling alley. But when his father, Butch, took him to watch harness racing at The Meadows and actually purchased horses to race, the teenager was hooked on what would become his life’s work.
He persuaded the late Herman Hylkema, a Meadows-based trainer, to allow him to jog one of Butch’s horses. He learned much about the game from Hylkema, his first mentor, and began driving at The Meadows in 1982. That first year was unspectacular — 14 drives, no wins. But thanks to the patronage of trainers such as Mark Goldberg, he received both driving assignments and valuable advice.
He had 33 wins the next year, and he was on his way. He’s been the leading driver at The Meadows for 33 consecutive years, and he’s won at least 368 races for 31 straight years; both those streaks remain intact. His horses have banked more than $152.3 million in purses.
While he may be best known as King of the Meadows, Palone has thrived against national competition as well. A brief stint as a trainer at The Meadowlands brought him into contact with some of harness racing’s top conditioners; they responded by giving him the call on many of their equine stars.
That proved to be a productive partnership, as Palone won the 2005 Little Brown Jug, the sport’s most prestigious pace for 3-year-olds, with P-Forty-Seven. He also has won the Messenger, a jewel in pacing’s Triple Crown, and three Breeders Crown races. In 2007, he was the leading driver on the Grand Circuit, the touring showcase for the sport’s top young horses. He was inducted into the Harness Hall of Fame in 2010.
Perhaps his most important professional partnership was formed with The Meadows-based trainer Ron Burke, the sport’s all-time “winningest” conditioner, who has provided the horsepower for probably thousands of Palone’s wins. The phenomenon of harness racing’s “winningest” driver teaming with the “winningest” trainer has no equivalent in sports.
“We grew up 6 miles apart, and we’re very similar, in that I love to win and he loves to win,” Burke said. “But I don’t think I love to win as much as he does. He comes totally prepared for every race; that’s what separates him from other drivers.”
“Ron’s the greatest trainer that ever lived as far as what he can get horses to do. Not only can he train the top horses, the Sweet Lous, but I can’t tell you how many $4,000 claimers I’ve won for him. It’s been a fun run, and we’ve had a lot of success together. Hopefully we can still continue to win races together.”
“A Really Good Good Sense of Pace”
Asked about the skills that have enabled him ton win 20,000 races, Palone cited “a really good sense of pace.”
“A lot of times I can pretty much smell out how the race will go in the middle of the first turn just by how much we’re traveling,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a long way to go from there, but I think a lot of races are won in positioning and getting your horses in the right spots without spending them too much. I like to think that I can win from any part of the racetrack.”
Others are more expansive, crediting his tireless preparation and physical and mental toughness.
“The mental aspect is just as hard to keep up as the physical. To do it at this level is an incredible feat, “ Campbell said.
Kim Hankins, MSOA executive director, noted that Palone is unusually well prepared for each drive.
“Most of the top drivers I’ve been around could tell you specifically not only what the horses they’re driving did the last three starts but also what every horse in the race did their last three starts — and how they were rigged,” Hankins said. “That’s pure horsemanship, and that’s David.”
Goldberg cited Palone’s willingness and ability to drive through pain.
““I couldn’t have foreseen this day because I didn’t know the kind of determination he has,” Goldberg said. “He’s driven through injuries that would have taken down a lot of tough guys. He’s harness racing’s Cal Ripken.”
Palone has been cutting back somewhat in recent years; he had 1,789 starts last year compared to 2,827, a career high, in 2008. But he says he has no immediate plans for the future.
“The goal of 20,000 has been pushing me for about a year,” Palone said. “Now that it’s here, I can honestly say that I have no plans. It’s still so satisfying. I miss the guys that I raced with in the heyday; I don’t see them around anymore. But we have a good bunch of young guys, and I still enjoy coming in here and banging it out.”
Huston doesn’t think Palone is considering the “R” word.
“He told me privately he has no plans to retire,” Huston said. “He said he likes to drive in the big races, and he’ll continue to drive as long as he’s healthy. I don’t think the thought of another milestone even enters his mind. He loves to do what he does.”
The Harness Racing Community Reacts
As Dave Palone neared career win 20,000, the harness racing world was moved to react. Here’s a sampler of that reaction.
“I think we’re running out of superlatives to describe Dave Palone. Twenty thousand wins? Unprecedented, amazing, incredible — they all apply. I can’t think of an athlete in any sport who has been so good for so long. Anyone who loves harness racing needs to appreciate this because we’re not going to see it again, at least not in our lifetimes.”
— Mike Tanner, Executive Vice President, United States Trotting Association
“It’s an unfathomable number when you think about it. When Herve retired, nobody thought anyone else would get to Herve’s total. To go by it by 5,000, a lot of things go into it: keeping the talent level up for all these years; an incredible work ethic; commitment to your craft. It’s more than just showing up; you have to be prepared every day you’re out there. The mental aspect is just as hard to keep up as the physical. To do it at this level is an incredible feat. It’s really hard to predict if someone else will reach 20,000 — so much goes into it — but if anybody gets close, I will tip my hat to him.”
— Hall of Famer John Campbell, president and CEO of the Hambletonian Society/Breeders Crown and the sport’s leading money-winning driver with nearly $300 million in purses.
“Think of it as 40 years of 500 wins. When you put it that way, it’s unbelievable. We grew up 6 miles apart, and we’re very similar, in that I love to win and he loves to win. But I don’t think I love to win as much as he does. He comes totally prepared for every race; that’s what separates him from other drivers. We learned from him to be prepared for every race. Obviously, he’s been an influence on us.”
— Hall of Famer Ron Burke, who has provided the horsepower for perhaps thousands of Palone’s victories.
“Having been in the business all my life and watched some of the national driving champions, it occurs to me that you could combine the win totals of several of them and still not get to 20,000. It’s an incredible feat, especially considering that David didn’t travel to two tracks at a time like many of the younger drivers do today.”
— Kim Hankins, executive director, Meadows Standardbred Owners Association
“Dave’s 20,000th driving win not only adds to his incredible list of achievements in harness racing, but it also has to be considered one of the great sporting benchmarks of all time. It is a testament to his talent, his longevity and his desire to continue to be one of best in his profession. We are fortunate that Dave has featured his talents at The Meadows for so many years and hope he adds thousands more victories to his total.”
— Chris McErlean, vice president of racing, Penn National Gaming, operator of Hollywood Casino at The Meadows
“I feel so lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to call the vast majority of those wins. That means a lot to me because I’ve been with Dave from the get-go. He’s mentioned that he became a harness racing fan riding to the track with his dad and listening to ‘Choices by the Voice’ on the radio. A lot of people have criticized him for not going out on the big stage, but his love of family is a big thing to him. I invited him to go to Ireland with me and race over there. He turned it down, said he wanted to stay around his family. That’s Dave Palone, the person.”
— Hall of Famer Roger Huston, race caller at The Meadows from 1976 to 2019
“I saw he could get a horse to go; he had a natural ability for that. That’s the difference between good drivers and great drivers. The great ones have the ability to communicate with horses. I couldn’t have foreseen this day because I didn’t know the kind of determination he has. He’s driven through injuries that would have taken down a lot of tough guys. He’s harness racing’s Cal Ripken.”
— Mark Goldberg, The Meadows-based trainer who gave Palone some of his first driving assignments in 1983
“Dave’s 20,000 wins is an unthinkable, incredible accomplishment that I don’t believe anyone ever thought would happen. What is most amazing to me is the daily work and effort Dave puts into preparing and driving each and every horse. He is blessed with extraordinary talent, an incredible work ethic and a competitive fire that still drives him to this day. Congratulations on this amazing milestone.”
— Scott Lishia, director of racing, Hollywood Casino at The Meadows