J.D. Dennis had passion for racing, state fair

J.D. Dennis Sr., who died Monday at age 85, was able to revisit Pocono Raceway in August for the track’s 50th anniversary celebration. Mr. Dennis, shown with a cane in one hand and an arm around his wife Nellie Ann and granddaughter Taylor to their right, presented a trophy to Don Wiest, winner of a legends race. Mr. Dennis was the track’s leading driver in its inaugural meet in 1965. (Submitted photo/Curtis Salonik)

J.D. Dennis Sr., who died Monday at age 85, was able to revisit Pocono Raceway in August for the track’s 50th anniversary celebration. Mr. Dennis, shown with a cane in one hand and an arm around his wife Nellie Ann and granddaughter Taylor to their right, presented a trophy to Don Wiest, winner of a legends race. Mr. Dennis was the track’s leading driver in its inaugural meet in 1965. (Submitted photo/Curtis Salonik)

HARRINGTON — Each of his phone calls started with a little razzing, especially if he had called multiple times before getting a live answer.

“You know who this is?” he’d ask each time.

From the Editor logo copy copyThere was always that moment of teasing, that distinctive grandfatherly voice, that earnest reason for calling. And, before each conversation ended, he would ask about family.

I’m going to miss J.D. Dennis Sr.

He died Monday at the age of 85. (Read his obituary.)

It was a month to the day after he willed himself down the stretch to revisit Pocono Raceway.

“I know that he didn’t feel well that day,” said his wife of 49 years, Nellie Ann. “But he was determined that he was going to that.”

Cancer wasn’t going to beat him down on this special trip back to a Winner’s Circle.

The Pocono track celebrated its 50th anniversary on Aug. 21 and Mr. Dennis was the guest of honor as the winningest driver in its inaugural meet.

The picture we have with this column shows Mr. Dennis in the crowded winner’s circle photo after he presented a trophy to Legends race winner Don Wiest.

Along with Nellie Ann and his granddaughter Taylor, Mr. Dennis made the 3½-hour drive up to Pennsylvania that day. Harrington Raceway race director Kevin Mack drove them.

“He was proud and glad to see the old drivers and old friends whom he hadn’t seen in a long time,” Mr. Mack said.

“I’m sure it was tiring for him. But he didn’t let on because he was so intent on enjoying the memories and everything else.”

We talked just a few days later and he thanked the newspaper for a feature story Delaware State News reporter Craig Anderson wrote for the Aug. 21 edition. His voice was strong and he talked with pride about his sons and daughters and that each of them had been involved in the sport.

Over these past few years, Mr. Dennis often reminisced about his friendship with my late grandfather, former Delaware state senator Tom Hickman. We sometimes talked about his boyhood home in rural Walston Switch, Maryland, just through the woods from this editor’s own childhood home. It was fun to learn about his dad, Archie Dennis, who had a country store on a country road that now bears his name, and how he would run his dogs for miles through those woods.

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At Pocono, he won 29 races in a 30-day meet.

The wins were just a handful of a career that likely had a few thousand, but there’s no definitive record of all of them. The U.S. Trotting Association credits him with 1,240, but that probably doesn’t include all the fair and other races he entered through the years.

He hauled horses and raced everywhere from Canada to Florida. Among his favorites were pacers Beau Butler and Elsie Butler, one of the top pacing mares in the country in the 1970s.

His eldest son, J. Durand Dennis Jr., recalls the fair-hopping they did in Pennsylvania many years ago and the fun they had at Ocean Downs back in the 1970s.

“I can remember when we were driving at the same time, we won the first father-son race down to Ocean Downs,” he said. “It was kind of interesting because I was just a young kid, and to this day, I kind of laugh about it. I was leading the race and at the three-quarter pole, he went by me, and then at the stretch, I went by him.”

Mr. Dennis Jr. spent just a few years driving before a long career with Delmarva Power. George and Eddie, Mr. Dennis’ two younger sons, have nearly 7,500 driving wins between them. His daughters Ellen Lee McReynolds and Sandra Robertson each spent many hours working in the barns, too.

It was Harrington that Mr. Dennis called home. These past few days, this editor talked with a number of people who spoke of his passion for harness racing and the Delaware State Fair.

“Other than family, those two things were his passions,” said Mr. Dennis Jr. of Harrington.

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In the days long before slot machines transformed the state fairgrounds, Mr. Dennis was known for doing whatever it took to keep racing and the fair moving forward. He would bring his own tractor over and drag the track or clean the streets with his water truck.

Back in the 1980s, he did his best to reinvigorate fair races, soliciting ads to fund purses for the Governor’s Day’s card. In 1986, he gathered up $10,000 in total prize money.

Fair director Terry Johnson recalled Mr. Dennis’ drive to make it happen.

“He orchestrated the volunteers, the starters, all the people that worked on the track,” Mr. Johnson said. “Tireless energy was put into an initiative that he had a passion for.”

For years, Mr. Dennis championed the effort to bring slot machines to Delaware with the idea that a portion would be dedicated to horse racing redevelopment — for purses and breeding funds.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize all that he and Bill Chambers from the fair and (state representative) Bobby Quillen had to do with that,” said Mr. Dennis Jr. “A lot of the young folks now in the industry, if they knew, would have a big thank you to say to them.”

Many Delawareans may not know how divided the state fair board of directors was on the slots issue in the early 1990s. Mr. Dennis was among the half supporting it.

“I know he took a mess of time away from what he probably needed to be doing to lobby for them,” said Mr. Dennis Jr.

Deadlocked, the deciding vote to bring a casino to the fair was left to then-president Bill Chambers. He voted yes and it ushered in a modern era of higher purses and greater competition to harness racing in Harrington.

A memorial service for Mr. Dennis was held Saturday at the Delaware State Fair.

“You hear the saying, ‘what goes around comes around.’ Well, almost 50 years ago we moved here and back then there was a trailer park right at the fairgrounds. And that’s where we lived,” his son said Thursday.

“So, how ironic, that’s where his final service will be. When I got up this morning, that’s what came to my mind.”

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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