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The story of Stanley Dancer

Posted: January 2, 2014 10:49 a.m.
Updated: January 3, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Sometimes random Christmas gifts turn into delicious surprises.

During this yuletide season,  a guy from Camden -- his name isn’t important, so we’ll just call him Bob -- received a novel gift from his wife, whom we’ll call Jane.

She’s a veteran antiquer, if that’s a word. She loves to browse in obscure antique stores, delighting in any hidden treasures she might find. Sometimes she finds nothing. She strikes out. That’s OK with her, because she enjoys the process, much like many fishermen can have a terrific day on the water without landing a single bass.

Last July, during one of her antique-shopping adventures, she came upon something she’d never seen before: an old weather vane -- probably from the 1930s or 1940s -- in the form of a harness racing team.

Thirty inches long, it was made of tin and had aged to a lustrous patina. It was finely detailed, too --  a horse in full stride, pulling a sulky on which was mounted a driver in perfect racing attire.

Even the tiny reins and wheel spokes of the sulky -- that’s what they call the cart on which the driver sits -- had been fashioned with care and precision.

Jane was charmed by the piece, but realized immediately that its original use as a weather vane on top of a building would place it so far away from people that they’d be unable to appreciate the craftsmanship that had gone into it.

“This isn’t a weather vane,” she thought. “This is a work of art.”

And so it became.

Jane had a cabinetmaker in Camden craft a wooden stand for it, and on Christmas morning, when Bob began to tear into the wrapper, she really wasn’t sure whether he’d like it or not.

She needn't have worried; he was overwhelmed. He loved the gift, so much so that he decided it needed a name. Certainly a fine horse and driver like that shouldn’t be relegated to anonymity, he thought.

A Google search of “best harness racing drivers in history” yielded several names, but one jumped out at Bob: Stanley Dancer.

“Ah, Stanley Dancer,” he murmured to himself. “What a perfect name for this piece.”

What Bob learned was that Stanley Dancer had been one of the great harness drivers of all time, thriving in an age when that sport was in its heyday.

An eighth-grade dropout, he began driving sulkies in 1945, racing a $75 horse while wearing borrowed silks. He became not only a champion driver but a breeder and owner. Photos of him reveal a slight man with a wry smile.

He was a tough cookie, surviving 32 racing spills, four auto accidents, a helicopter crash and a plane crash. In his driving days, he had two heart attacks. In 1955, he broke his back. In 1973, his right arm started to atrophy from nerve damage sustained in a collision years earlier. In 1988, he broke two bones in his back and tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder.

He was advised by physicians to quit racing, but he ignored them.

Despite his spindly frame, he employed an aggressive, all-out style from the start, retaining that strategy over the years despite an endless physical beating.  Sports Illustrated’s Pete Axthelm observed, “His colleagues say he won’t really be satisfied until somebody holds a series of races for the greatest harness racing horses in the world and finds that every one of them beds down in the Dancer stable.”

He raced until 1995, finally retiring at the age of 68. He died in 2005.

And now Stanley Dancer sits -- not literally, of course -- on his sulky in a Camden home, urging his tin horse on to victory.

Like many of the stories I tell you, this one has no earth-shattering significance. It won’t change the course of world events. History won’t record the fact that Jane found an old weather vane -- a piece of art -- at an out-of-the-way antique shop.

Network news shows won’t do a segment on Bob or on Stanley Dancer. And no doubt some of you might find this column boring, needless.

It’s just an ordinary tale of how simple things can enrich our lives, a reminder that a random Christmas purchase can leave smiles on our faces and flames in our hearts.

Bob tells me that as he passes through his den, he pauses daily to admire his newfound treasure, and he finds himself looking down at the weather vane -- at a tin horse and driver from another era -- and saying, “Stanley Dancer … what a hell of a guy.”

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