By Kimberly French
Throughout his twenty years of driving, 47-year-old Dave Palone has captured some of harness racing's most prestigious events, piloted many of the sport's top horses and garnered various accolades, but what he achieved out of the sulky is what brought him the most joy.
"I've been fortunate that I've never had to leave my family like some of these guys that had to go East and I feel bad for them," explained the Waynesburg, PA, native. "I know it's a great opportunity; they are doing well and racing for a lot of money, but I know how hard it would be to stay away from my kids day in and day out. I couldn't imagine not being able to come home from the races and be with my family. I've been very grateful that I have been able to stay in Pennsylvania at The Meadows and be this successful."
Currently, Palone is the fourth leading driver in America in both number of wins (365) and purse money ($4.2) earned. He has won the Little Brown Jug (P-Forty-Seven, 2005); the Breeders Crown Three-Year-old Colt Trot (In Focus, 2008); the Messenger (Go for Grins, 1996); the Jugette (Maudlin Hanover, 1999; Numeric Hanover, 2003); the Nadia Lobell (Maudlin Hanover, 2003); the Adios (Washington VC, 1999); the Provincial Cup, (Arturo, 1997); the Windy City Pace (Arturo, 1997); the Matron (Ultimate Goal, 1992), and the Beacon Course (Dontellmenomore, 1991.)
Palone collected the national title for most driving wins (1999, 2000, and 2004,) has been the Harness Tracks of America's Driver of the Year a record five times and trails only Herve Filion (15,174) and Cat Manzi (13,327) in career victories (13,144.) The Washington, PA, resident was nominated to the sport's Living Hall of Fame on July 4.
"Dave has provided so many on-track thrills for us, that it is easy to overlook what a wonderful ambassador for the sport he is," David Wiegmann, The Meadow's acting general manager said in a press release on May 5. "He also makes himself available to any and all media, and no matter the occasion, he is a true professional."
When he pushed through the turnstiles for the first time around age 12 or 13, Palone knew exactly how he wanted to earn a living. The teenager was a 4-H member and had shown English, Western and saddleseat, so he knew a thing or two about equines. But once he saw his father's newly acquired racehorses, Palone was hooked on harness racing.
"I went to the Waynesburg fairgrounds on weekends during the summer and learned from the bottom up," he remembered. "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."
During his late teens and into his late twenties, Palone also conditioned his own small stable, but decided to give up training when he was around 27 to concentrate on catch driving.
"It (training) was just too much and my true love was driving in races," he said. "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.
"It's still a great feeling to win races even at this stage of my career," Palone continued. "If people tell you it doesn't mean anything to win anymore, I think they are lying to you. I'm 47 and 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."
He has hit the line first in countless contests, but there are three victories that hold a special place in his heart.
"There have been many memorable drives, but I can give you three," Palone said. "The top one would be the Little Brown Jug, because it was such a David and Goliath story when we upset the invincible Rock N Roll Hanover. Also the horse was a local Ohio horse trained by Kelly O'Donnell, an Ohio-based trainer and a good friend of mine. I felt like everyone there was backing me up because of the Ohio connections and it was very emotional.
"Another thrill was winning the Jugette with my brother Michael as the trainer and of course the Adios," he continued.
Palone does, however, have regrets.
"I really cherished my time at the fairs," he said. "Before I ever drove a horse, I loved going as a groom to take care of and learn about the horses. That is the one part of the game that I really miss, because I don't go to the fairs anymore. I learned a lot there and met a lot of good people."
Roger Huston, a member of the Hall of Fame and The Meadows announcer, feels that Palone is just naturally blessed.
"I don't know how many times I've thought, ‘Gee, what is he doing?' and then they come under the wire and he's on top," Huston said in 2005. "He's able to read what's developing in behind the gate better than any other driver I've ever seen race."
Like all drivers, every time Palone settles into the sulky he runs the risk of severe injury and has not emerged unscathed. In 2007, he broke his femur and shoulder within five months and hopping back into the bike once his injuries healed was not easy.
"I broke my femur that April and was given a prognosis of four months, but I was back in seven weeks, so that was pretty incredible," Palone said. "Then in September I broke my shoulder, so that's a year to probably forget because I did a lot of bouncing around.
"I want to meet the guy that says business as usual, because that last accident affected me quite a bit mentally," he continued. "I had trouble getting back to the level I wanted to and I don't know if you could call it conquering demons or what. When I was younger I would go down, get back up and not think much of it, but that wreck was devastating. I remember laying on the track in so much pain, knowing how serious it was, but I'm so glad to be back at full strength and driving as well as I ever have."
Is there anything Palone feels he still must accomplish?
"It's such an honor and very humbling to think your peers think that much of your career to nominate you for the Hall of Fame and I don't think it has sunk in yet," he said. "I've driven some nice horses and won some big races, but all I've wanted is just to keep myself winning races and continue to do what I love.
"I've been lucky and wish every driver had the opportunities I've had, but you have to keep proving yourself every day because there is always some young talented gun waiting to take my spot," Palone continued. "As long as I can prove to trainers that I can win races at age 47, I can continue to do what I love and where is there another sport that's like that?"