On July 3, 1970, Donald Dancer climbed into the sulky behind a trotter named Sioux Grandchamp and steered him to victory.
The precocious Dancer was 14 years old. His first parimutuel triumph came in a special race for amateur drivers that was part of Grand Circuit Week at Goshen, N.Y., home of the Hall of Fame of the Trotter.
Twenty years later, Dancer is moving his future Hall of Fame credentials from New York to Los Alamitos for a 42-night meet that opens Friday and extends through Oct. 20. Dancer has never driven at the Orange County oval before.
Dancer is a member of one of the most famous families in harness racing. His father, Vernon, was a top driver for years before a leg injury restricted him to training. His uncle, Stanley, is one of the most illustrious trainer-drivers of modern times and is already in the Hall of Fame.
Dancer, 34, has won more than 3,500 races--1,200 ahead of any Los Alamitos rival--and earned nearly $20-million in purses.
The 5-foot-9, 158-pounder has been a leading driver on the New Jersey, Delaware Valley and New York circuits. He hit a personal high of $3.2 million in purses in 1988 and has been a top driver at Yonkers Raceway in recent years.
"In 1988, I earned $3.2 million with almost as many wins (371). This year I've earned slightly over $1-million (after seven months). Each year the purses have gone down at Yonkers.
"That's why I'm looking to make a change. It's a career move. I've heard nothing but great things about this place, and that's rare in this business. It's one of the few tracks that's way up."
Dancer moved his wife, Renee, and their daughters--Desiree, 5, and Scarlett, 3--to Los Alamitos this week.
"I'm bringing three horses of my own but I'll mostly catch-drive (drive for other trainers)," Dancer said. "Nick Sodano, one of the leading trainers at the Meadowlands, is sending out TK's Skipper and Conditional, both powerhouses, for the American Racing Classic, as well as a couple of others. Jack Wyatt is sending out two or three, and Andy Getz six or seven. I should have about 17 to start with."
Dancer has won several major stakes, including the Levy final with Dragon's Lair and the U.S. Pacing Championship with Play The Palace in 1988.
"The race that meant the most was in 1983 at Freehold (N.J.) with Valley Jewel," the New Jersey native said. "The race was named the Helen Dancer Memorial for my grandmother. My father trained the horse. We beat Turn The Tide, the heavy favorite. The whole family was there."
Lloyd Arnold, president and general manager of Los Alamitos, proudly toured the refurbished facility this week.
The most significant improvement is a new paddock at the end of the grandstand that Arnold hopes will be completed early in the meet.
"We're trying to get fan participation back," Arnold said. "We're trying to get the public closer to the horses to see and hear what's going on. It's always been a mystery what's going on in the receiving bar. Now they can see for themselves."
The brightly lit area contains 30 cinderblock stalls on a Tartan surface. "That's enough for three races," said Arnold. "I think we can cut down time between races from 17 minutes to 12. That can save an hour on each program. We can get the fans out at 10 on weeknights and at 11 on weekends."
An adjacent drivers' room, measuring 4,200 square feet, is also near completion. It is divided into men's and women's quarters and is equipped with a sauna.
The clubhouse boasts the Finish Line Room, a plush non-smoking room that has table space for 400 people with buffet food service, betting windows and television monitors. A trackside deck is projected next year.
The interior of the grandstand has been repainted with light colors and 65 new television monitors have been added. A new sports bar is in the works.
Arnold moved to the second level of the grandstand. Behind him, workers painted the inner rail. A new pink flower bed forming the letters \o7 LARC\f7 adorned an area in front of the toteboard. Arnold pointed to an area where construction is scheduled to begin Dec. 1 on a glass-enclosed clubhouse that will seat 1,250. "And two years after we've built our new grandstand, we'll be the No. 1 harness track in the United States," Arnold said.
Los Alamitos became the first inter-track wagering site in Orange County Sunday when it began to handle Del Mar thoroughbred action the day after the conclusion of the Orange County fair meet. With free parking and free general admission for the opener, a crowd of 6,069 wagered $1,071,399.
Del Mar's afternoon schedule continues through Sept. 12, meaning 11 times when both tracks will be open on the same date. Los Alamitos is dark Sunday and Monday; Del Mar is closed Tuesday.
ITW and harness racing both require a $2.25 general admission. Arnold said ITW patrons would be allowed to remain for the harness program without additional charge.
Will the Del Mar simulcast help, hurt or have minimal impact on Los Alamitos harness business?