vernon j. dancer
Vernon Dancer was born in Red Valley, New Jersey on August 3, 1923. He drove his first race at Freehold in 1952 with the stakes-winning Miss Norah. In 1963, he won the Geers at DuQuoin and set a track record at Monticello with Lyss Hanover. In 1964, in one of the most memorable of all races at Yonkers Raceway, he drove Cardigan Bay to victory over Overtrick in the Dan Patch Pace, in a track and world record time.
Three years later Dancer drove the first 2:00 mile at Freehold with Perswick. In the years following came an upset of Speedy Crown with Keystone Hilliard in the Founders Gold Cup at Vernon and a victory in the Miller Memorial with Nevele Romeo. Then, in 1969, the Grand Circuit turned into Vernon Dancer’s stage as he campaigned Victory Star, whom he broke, trained and drove to honors as the season’s champion two-year-old trotting colt and richest moneywinning juvenile trotter. Dancer brought him back as a three-year-old to win the $100,000 Yonkers Futurity.
Vernon Dancer’s favorite Standardbred was the picture-perfect Honeysuckle Rose, one of the most graceful and formidable fillies of her era. Dancer-trained, she never made a break in her career, which included victories in the Proximity, Hanover, Lexington Filly and Walnut Hall at two and the Flora Temple, Hudson Filly, Blue Bonnets, Battle of Saratoga, Review Futurity, Martha Washington and the Old Oaken Bucket at Delaware, in 1973 at three.
Tempered Yankee, whom Vernon Dancer also broke, trained and drove, was the perfect pacer. His greatest triumph came in a free-for-all at Roosevelt, when he paced the fastest last quarter ever recorded at that track to that time, in beating an all-star field that included Rum Customer, Fulla Napoleon, Laverne Hanover, Miss Conna Adios and Sunnie Tar.
For the last half of the great colt’s two-year-old season, Dancer also drove Super Bowl, the last winner of trotting’s Triple Crown. Together, they set track records at Liberty Bell and Yonkers, won the Greyhound in Springfield, the Horseman’s Stake in Indianapolis, the International Stallion Stake in Lexington, the Westbury at Roosevelt, and then took the Westchester at Yonkers in a photo over a field that included Songcan and Delmonica Hanover.
The following year, Dancer won the Battle of Brandywine and the American-National with Silent Majority and drove Decorum to a world record while defeating the brilliant Romalie Hanover.
In 1976, Vernon Dancer won a heat of the Hambletonian Stake with Zoot Suit. Then, on Memorial Day at Freehold in 1977, 25 years after he had started his career there, he went down in a harrowing wreck when his mount, the three-year-old Some Network, fell at the head of the stretch. Dancer’s leg was shattered in five places. His driving career had ended but not before he had racked up a UDRS of over 300. He had also reached ninth in the all-time standing of moneywinning drivers. He had driven in 1,723 winners, earned $8.96 million and was 53 years old.
Vernon Dancer was not only significant to the sport in terms of his horsemanship. In 1997, he played a major role in overturning a New Jersey tax ruling that could have cost owners and trainers of horses in the state (both Standardbred and Thoroughbred), hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Vernon Dancer died on September 5, 2000, just three weeks before his election to Harness Racing’s Hall of Fame was announced.
Published in the Harness Racing Museum's 2001 Souvenir Journal