Tom Archdeacon: All roads lead to home for top harness driver

The distance between Barn 4 at the Greene County Fairgrounds and the paddock at Hollywood Dayton Raceway is just 15.8 miles.

That’s one reason for local racing fans to rejoice.

It means Dan Noble — one of the best harness drivers in the nation, a guy who has won nearly 4,800 races and $26 million in purses — will be at Dayton Raceway when it begins its fourth season of racing Monday afternoon with a 14-race card that begins at 2:15 p.m.

Noble has a real affinity for home and, because of that, the pari-mutuel track that’s closest to it.

And as he said Thursday morning as he stood just outside Barn 4: “This is home.”

“This goes back to my great granddad (Sam O. Noble), he built this barn. It was the first pole barn out here. And my grandpa (Sam Jr.) raced out of here after him and then my dad (Ohio Harness Racing Hall of Famer Chip Noble) did, too. I’m the fourth generation. So it means a lot.

“I actually grew up just two miles down the road and I was in this barn almost every day as a kid. In the beginning I had to clean stalls, do everything the grooms do. My dad called it learning ‘from the ground up.’

“I was probably 8 when I jogged my first horse.”

Eight years later — on the dirt oval just beyond Barn 4 — he won his first pari-mutuel race as a 16-year-old driver at the 1999 Greene County Fair.

“After school, I’d change clothes and hurry out here,” he said. “I took care of two horses here and I just loved it.”

Once he graduated from high school, he went off to college in Nashville.

“I lasted about two weeks,” he shrugged. “It just wasn’t for me so I came right back out here to the barn and worked beside my father.”

Once he began to stand out — winning driving titles at Scioto and Northfield in 2011, becoming the leading dash driver in all of racing that year with 773 wins and being awarded the Dan Patch Rising Star Award given by the U.S. Harness Writers Association — he drew interest from around the racing world.

Some prominent East Coast horsemen tried to convince him to move to New Jersey so he could race regularly at the Meadowlands and other prominent tracks there, but again he said he decided not to leave home:

“They asked me numerous times to come out and one year I did go out five weekends in a row to race and I enjoyed it. But then I came back home.”

When Dayton Raceway opened in the fall of 2014 — just after Miami Valley Raceway’s debut that spring in Warren County — he said the close proximity of the two tracks made his staying in Xenia that much easier.

The biggest reason though, he admitted Thursday, had been the January 2014 death of his 60-year-old dad after a battle with cancer.

“Before the passing of my dad, I never really had planned on being a trainer even though I had trained alongside him for 14 years and had enjoyed every minute of it. But I figured staying here was a good way of carrying on the Noble name.”

Last month he carried the name to Dublin, Ireland, where he’d been invited to take part in a gala, two-day affair — centered around the running of the Vincent Delaney Memorial Harness Race — at Portmarnock Raceway.

He had caught the eye of Irishmen Derek and James Delaney, who put on the racing weekend to honor their late brother. Derek also owns the sire Foreclosure N that stood in Ohio for a year and produced several successful foals, including Drunk On Your Love, a gelded pacer that Dan drives.

He accepted their invitation and brought his mom as well as his fiancé, Kristi Pokornowski. It was his first trip overseas and he made quite a splash.

“The crowd was amazing,” he said. “The place was completely packed. It kind of looked like the Kentucky Derby with everybody dressed up. The women were in their dresses and big hats. It was like the Little Brown Jug, too. There was that kind of excitement.

“I actually got more races than I expected. I drove four the first day and like eight the next. I ended up winning two and then broke the track record for the mile and a quarter.

“It seemed like the people really loved me — I kind of wish we had had one more day afterward to see the sights.”

Instead, he turned around, flew back home and was at Barn 4 soon after he landed.

A family affair

On the front of the barn, next to the big doorway, Dan has affixed a large wooden replica of the red and white silks worn by his father.

“I hung them up in memory of my dad,” he said.

But if the place is a totem to the past, it’s also home to the future.

“My son Colton is 13 and he’s starting to get involved,” Dan said. “He started jogging horses two months ago and he keeps asking me when he can start driving.

“His mother is in the business as well and until we split up, we kept him in the barn. So I guess he has the fever, too.

“But I never thought he’d actually want to do it because he’s into video games and he sits with the Xboxes and PlayStations. But he’s really an intelligent kid and he’s even come up with a design for his own colors.”

For the family’s first three generations, the racing colors were always red, white and black. Dan changed that, he said, after he got a dispensation:

“I actually went to my grandfather and got permission to change them. He asked what the colors were and I told him purple and gold. He said, ‘OK, you can change to purple. It’s a sign of royalty.’ ”

And Grandpa turned out to be prescient.

Dan has shown time and again he is race-cart royalty.

Last Saturday night, three weeks after his success in Ireland, he was a big winner on the Ohio Super Night card at Scioto Downs.

He won a pair of $250,000 races, guiding Bad Girls Rule to victory in the two-year-old filly pace in 1:54.3 and taking the Ohio Sire Stakes with Drunk On Your Love in 1:53.

Met in Buffalo

Speaking of love, that was one of the topics that came up as I spoke to Dan and Kristi outside Barn 4 Thursday while they took a break from their morning chores with the dozen horses they had stabled inside.

Later in the day they’d head to the Hardin County Fair in Kenton where they had two horses on the evening card. And the two nights after that they’d be back in Columbus to close out the meet at Scioto Downs where Dan — even with his break for Ireland — was third in driving wins.

Each morning in Xenia, Dan handles the training, the rigging and any dealings with owners. Kristi is in charge of care for the horses, barn management and the paperwork.

They make a good team because, like Dan, she’s a fourth-generation horseman. She grew up in Batavia, N.Y., and spent six years at Medaille College and D’Youville College, both in Buffalo, studying biology and veterinary technology.

She worked at a veterinary practice two years, then returned to the race track. She met Dan when he drove for a while in Buffalo.

“At the beginning of 2018 it will be six years we’ve been together,” teased Kristi. “On my birthday this Halloween, it will be four years since he gave me a ring.”

Dan seemed to shuffle around a bit uncomfortably. He knew where this conversation — with some prompting — was headed.

He told a story involving one of his buddies:

“His fiancé brought up this same thing two nights ago. She said, ‘It’s been eight years and he just gave me a ring. Now it will be another five years!’ ”

Kristi started to laugh and Dan squirmed a little more.

“Well…uuuuh…we don’t really have that much time,” he mumbled. “Well, we might have time, but…aaahh… we’re not home a lot.”

This from the guy who always gravitates to home?

Yeah, right.

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