Harrington’s Dennis honored for decades at track

Pictured around 1989 are, from left, harness drivers Eddie, J.D., and George Dennis. J.D. Dennis was set to be honored by Pocono Downs on Friday as the track celebrated its 50th anniversary. (Submitted photos by Dennis Family)

Pictured around 1989 are, from left, harness drivers Eddie, J.D., and George Dennis. J.D. Dennis was set to be honored by Pocono Downs on Friday as the track celebrated its 50th anniversary.
(Submitted photos by Dennis Family)

HARRINGTON — Fifty years, where do they go?

On Friday night, harness racing legend J.D. Dennis Sr. was set to be honored as Pocono Downs celebrated a half-century of hosting drivers, horses and the sulkies they share.

Back in 1965, Mr. Dennis took home 29 victories in an estimated “30 to 40 days” to be the winningest driver in the first year of Pocono Downs.

The 85-year-old Harrington resident hasn’t been forgotten in Pennsylvania, and was to present a trophy to the winner of a non-betting legends race on the celebration night. He said he received a split-second watch for his Pocono Downs exploits in that first year.

J.D. Dennis is pictured in front of his Harrington home earlier this week. (Delaware State News photo by Craig Anderson)

J.D. Dennis is pictured in front of his Harrington home earlier this week.
(Delaware State News photo by Craig Anderson)

“It was just getting started then,” he remembered.

Earlier in the week at his home that’s nearly in the shadows of Harrington Raceway, Mr. Dennis said, “Yeah I miss it a little bit.”

Mr. Dennis retired as a driver and trainer in 2003, and at one time had 49 horses that he raced and trained. The training sessions were the key to success at the post, he said.

“You’ve got to jog them and get their windup, get them ready to race,” he said.

At least Mr. Dennis knows that his family name continues to pile up wins, however, through his sons George and Eddie.

“Since I’ve been retired, I’ve been ailing, but turned it over to the boys,” Mr. Dennis said. “The two of them race all the time.”

George and Eddie, both Lake Forest High products, are closing in on harness racing milestones:

• George has nearly 5,000 career victories in 44,000 starts along with more than 950 training wins.

• Younger brother Eddie has 2,405 first places in 19,500 starts, along with 502 training triumphs. He’s earned $12 million in purses for those believing in his ability to win, place or show.

And as for the eldest of the Dennis harness racing dynasty, J.D. knows that his victory total is “in the thousands, but I don’t know how many.”

Eddie and George only know a life involving harness racing, since they grew up with a dad competing from Canada to Florida and several tracks in between, including Rosecroft, Delmarva Downs, Ocean Downs, Laurel, and Ocean Downs, among a multitude of others.

“When he was racing we were in the grandstands playing,” Eddie said.

“Like any kid following his parent you learn more as you grow older. It gets in your blood and stays there.”

J.D. Dennis isn’t sure exactly how many career harness racing wins he earned, but is sure it is in the thousands. (Submitted photo/Dennis Family)

J.D. Dennis isn’t sure exactly how many career harness racing wins he earned, but is sure it is in the thousands. (Submitted photo/Dennis Family)

George learned from his father that “You have to work hard to stay in it. There a lot of long hours and you don’t spend a lot of hours home, especially during racing season.”

Mr. Dennis got his own start from his father, who became involved in horse racing after closing his grocery store in the Walton Switch/Parsonsburg area, east of Salisbury, Maryland.

Eventually, Mr. Dennis rose to No. 11 in the United States Trotting Association’s driver rankings, though he couldn’t remember exactly which year it was. Other rankings came in 1968 (No. 36) and 1969 (No. 24).

Never to be forgotten is the broken neck he suffered at Freehold Raceway in New Jersey, when Mr. Dennis rolled over a horse that fell down in front of him and became lodged in a guard rail. After a doctor examined him in, Mr. Dennis said he and a friend drove home to Salisbury where three doctors were waiting.

“They told me when I got there that with no treatment I would have been dead in another 30 minutes,” he said.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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