Though harness racing driver Dave Palone may not be a household name to many sports fans in Pittsburgh, he’s unquestionably a name you should know. Based out of local harness racing track the Meadows, Palone has quietly put together a resume that could rival the best that this sports crazed city has to offer, and it’s really not even up for debate.
With over 16,000 wins, which includes many wins in the premiere races in the sport, over $100 million in career earnings, induction into both the Harness Racing and Pittsburgh Sports Hall of Fame, Palone has earned a seat at the table with the best of the best in the Pittsburgh sports.
It’s been an amazing journey for the Waynesburg, Pa. native, and after all of these years, it just seems to get better.
Now, reflecting back on nearly 40 years in the sport, the 52-year-old Palone can still remember that first experience of going to the Meadows back in 1976. For Palone, it was a pivotal, life-altering event.
“My Dad took me to the Adios, which to this day is the biggest race of the year at the Meadows,” Palone reflected. “I remember vividly watching Keystone Ore and Armbro Ranger battle it out in the final, and Armbro Ranger pulled off the upset by a nose. The stands were packed and everyone was cheering. It was really at that point that I got hooked.
“I’ve always loved horses, and I did some things with the 4H club growing up, but it was when I started hanging out at the Waynesburg Fairgrounds, cleaning stalls, helping any way that I could to be around and work with the horses, that I started to get involved in the sport. Soon thereafter, I was able to begin working for legendary trainer Herman Hylkema, and he was the one that taught me so much about harness racing.”
Palone has certainly come a long way since his early days working as a groom as a teenager. It was Hylkema who first gave Palone a chance to get in the sulky and eventually start training horses, preparing them to race at the Meadows.
“As soon as I got in the bike for the first time, I knew that this was something that I wanted to do,” Palone remembered. “I thought, hopefully I would have a little bit of ability and maybe even make a living doing something I loved.”
Early on, Palone learned the ropes of harness racing by traveling to county fairs in Ohio. It was there that Palone learned the importance of getting the “feel” for racing, something that Palone believes has been a key ingredient to the success he has had over the years.
“One of the things I got from some of the more experienced horsemen early on was to learn about the feel and pace of the races, and it was great advice,” Palone said. “Now, a lot of younger drivers are so worried about winning, that they miss out on that, and never really get the feel for racing.”
It’s that feel, almost a second sense of being able to know the next move before it’s ever made, that has helped Palone become one of the most revered horsemen in the sport. It’s also helped contribute to unparalleled success over his career.
Palone will be the first admit that his driving career started slowly. In fact, Palone would wait nearly a year before he would get his first win after his professional debut in 1982. After getting his first win in 1983, there would be steady improvement from Palone in the coming years.
However, there was little evidence that Palone would accomplish one of the great feats in the history of the sport — surpassing the all-time wins record held by harness racing legend, Herve Fillion, who won 15,180 races over his illustrious career.
For Palone, breaking the record in July of 2012 was particularly special because he grew up idolizing the flamboyant Fillion, whose trademark was standing up in the sulky after a big win. When considering some of the great moments of his career, having Fillion come to the Meadows to watch Palone get his 15,000th victory is one of the more special.
Well on his way to 17,000 victories, Palone remembers many great wins, but one of his favorites was winning the race where he first dreamed of being a harness driver, the prestigious “Adios Pace for the Orchids.”
When reflecting on winning the “Adios” in 1999, Palone remembers the race being special, because it was an unexpected win.
“When I won the “Adios” with Washington VC, it was kind of like a Disney story,” Palone said. “Blissful Hall was the heavy favorite in that race and nobody thought he could be beat. I guess that’s why you run the races, and it was a memorable day with so many friends and family there to enjoy the moment.”
With another edition of the “Adios” this coming Saturday, you can bet Palone will be involved. Though stuck with a tough post position and a relatively experienced horse, Palone is always somebody to keep an eye on driving Bushwacker.
Palone is especially excited this year because his brother-in-law Brian Zendt will be driving in the $450,000 final, driving local horse, Cammikey.
“I’d almost be more excited to see Brian win than if it was me,” according to Palone. “It’s going to be special for both of us for sure.”
As for the future, Palone feels better than ever, and with the support of his wife, Bethann and daughters, Alana and Sophie, there does not seem to be an end in sight any time soon.
“I still enjoy racing so much right now. For me, I’ve got a streak of 500 or more wins a year going for 25 straight years,” he said. “So as long as I can keep winning at that kind of clip, I think I will keep driving.”
With that, Palone laughed and said, “Once the time comes to step away, I’ll just own a handful of horses and enjoy piddling around at the farm.”