by Evan Pattak
WASHINGTON, PA, Sept. 15, 2021 — Dave Palone, harness racing’s all-time “winningest” driver with 19,683 victories, added another honor to his Hall of Fame career Wednesday at The Meadows. When he piloted Lous Sassin to victory in a Keystone Classic, Palone passed $150 million in career purses. The win lifted his earnings total to $150,003,463.
Palone’s success might not have been predicted as he had no harness racing in his background when his father Butch, a car dealer, introduced him to the sport as a fan at The Meadows.
“My dad barely knew the difference between a trotter and a pacer, but he loved the game, and he passed that along to me,” Palone says. “When he took me to my first Adios, I was hooked. I was always competitive in sports, and I knew right away this was what I wanted to do.
“I wouldn’t have dreamed my horses would earn $150 million. It would take me a long time to make that working at a convenience store, which is about all I’m qualified for except this. So I’m very appreciative.”
After learning the trade from trainer Herman Hylkema and others, Palone began driving in 1982 when he earned a less-than-robust $1,955 in 14 starts. But as he gained confidence and attracted more competitive horses, the purses began flowing. Between 2008 and 2011 alone, Palone’s mounts earned more than $41 million.
He’s been the leading driver at The Meadows for 33 straight years — he’s almost certain to wrap up No. 34 — but he’s dramatically reduced his presence on the Grand Circuit.
“It was great getting those opportunities, and I cherished being in those big races and getting to drive the top horses,” he says. “But I never, ever liked the traveling. These days, the fellas jump on a plane and travel together. I was always the only guy from The Meadows who had to find my way. It was hard for me to get to places. That makes for a long night if you don’t do any good. Thankfully, we had a good run, and I’ll never forget those times.”
Palone says his most memorable wins came in the Little Brown Jug (P-Forty-Seven, 2005), the Adios (Washington VC, 1999), and the Breeders Crown (In Focus, 2008; Uncle Peter, 2011; Sweet Lou, 2011). But he also cites a lesser-known triumph with Dontellmenomore in the 1991 Beacon Course Trot (now the Stanley Dancer Trot), a Hambletonian prep at the Meadowlands.
“That was important,” he says, “because it was a $400,000 race, the horse wasn’t eligible for the Hambletonian, and I hadn’t had much exposure racing against the Campbells and O’Donnells of our sport.”
Although he’s been driving a little less each year, Palone says he has no immediate plans to retire.
“My biggest fear is not being able to fill a day because I can’t sit still. You can only play so much bad golf, you can only drive your wife nuts so much. I still love driving horses. I don’t love the nasty weather or chasing at 30-1, but I still love being in the hunt. How many 59-year-olds get to compete with their sport’s best?”
That $150 million in purses has meant $7.5 million in commissions for Palone, and he allows that has changed him in a way. For most of his career, the first thing he did each morning was check his “doubles,” races where he’d been named to drive more than one horse and needed to make choices. That’s no longer the case.
“The first thing I check now,” he jokes, “is the stock market.”