All Heart

Atta Boy Dan is the consummate professional and all his connections fall for him

story by John Sacco

Respect and admiration often are earned through honest and sincere effort and winning performances.

Those who have trained, driven, owned, and cared for Atta Boy Dan share a deep and abiding respect and love for the 11-year-old pacer.

“He has the heart of a champion,” said Ron Burke, who co-owned the gelding with Weaver Bruscemi and also trained the horse. “If you didn’t get him by the final turn, you weren’t going to get him. Truly, he is a great horse as far as attitude and desire.

“He is wonderful, nice, and willing. I couldn’t say anything bad about him. He’s just a professional racehorse.”

Atta Boy Dan, a son of Western Terror – Dropitlikeitshot, is a full brother to Appellate ($150,386) and was purchased for $70,000 from the 2010 Lexington Selected Yearling Sale by Winchester Baye Acres. He was then purchased by Peggy Dupler, who owned him for four months before returning him to Winchester Baye Acres. Atta Boy Dan was then sold to the Burkes and Weaver Bruscemi. The gelding has overcome many injuries, plus changes of ownership and barns throughout his career.

When Atta Boy Dan performed at The Meadows, Dave Palone was usually holding the lines.

Palone, the winningest harness racing driver of all time, said Atta Boy Dan is one of his all-time favorite horses to drive.

“He’s made more comebacks than Rocky,” Palone said. “When you think he might not make it back, he not only would get back out on the track, he would beat sounder and younger horses. You could use him as many times as you wanted in a race and he responded every time. I had a special bond with him.”

Currently, Atta Boy Dan is owned by Stephen Larkin and trained by Peter Pellegrino. He last raced Sept. 12 at The Meadowlands.

In 2020, Atta Boy Dan made 20 starts, winning six races, finishing second once and third once. Larkin and Pellegrino decided to not race him the remainder of the year. The plan calls for him to resume his profession as a 12-year-old.

“He needed a break and some rest,” Larkin said.

Atta Boy Dan was honored as the 2019 Pacer of the Year and Claimer of the Year at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono.

In 2019, he started 40 times with 19 wins, six place finishes, and four third-place finishes and earned $213,930. He paced in 1:49.3 as a 10-year-old. The 19 victories were a single-year high, topping his 18-win 2015 season.

In 2019, Atta Boy Dan was claimed out of 14 consecutive races—an unofficial record—and 19 times overall.

In his career, he has 77 wins, 35 second-place finishes, and 30 third-place finishes from 218 career starts. He has a .353 winning percentage and a .651 in the money percentage.

“What he did (in 2019) was amazing,” Larkin said. “The thing I love most about him is that he just gives his best every week. In my opinion, he’s never had a bad week. He’s always trying down the stretch. He has a great heart and is a great horse.”

Larkin, who resides in Massachusetts, claimed Atta Boy Dan in September of 2019 for $40,000. The horse had been claimed after 14 consecutive starts.

In those 14 starts where he was claimed, Atta Boy Dan won 11 times, was second twice, and third once.

“He has overcome so much,” Burke said. “We finally started racing him in claimers because asking him to race in the Opens just wasn’t fair to him anymore.

“I think I had him the longest of anyone, December 2013 to May of 2019. We all loved him. He won some upper-level races. He’s been switched around barns so much. But he’s been such a good horse for everyone who has had him. He just has so much heart and class.”

Larkin, who is employed as a corrections counselor for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, got his first horse in the mid-1990s.

“My father owned horses a long time ago,” Larkin said. “In 1995, I moved to New York for a job. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t have any hobbies, and I ended up going to Monticello Raceway to pass some time. I met some people and developed some relationships there and I ended up claiming some horses and that’s how I met Pete.”

Larkin admired Atta Boy Dan because of his back class and toughness. The horse’s most impressive win came in 2015 in the Robert J. Kane Memorial at Batavia Downs. He also finished second in the Gold Cup and Saucer on Prince Edward Island.

Atta Boy Dan reached a milestone on July 20, 2020, when he surpassed $1 million in lifetime earnings. He has banked $1,008,564 during his career.

On the day he broke the $1 million barrier, George Napolitano Jr., his driver in many victories along the way, dropped Atta Boy Dan into fourth early in the race, then moved first-over against pacesetter Nine Ways before pacing on to victory.

“He’s just a good old horse,” Napolitano Jr. said. “The last few years have been crazy for him. He’s always performed very well for everyone who has had him in their barn.

“As a catch-driver, and I had a choice to pick the horse I wanted to drive, I had to pick him no matter who else I could have picked. He would give you everything he had to win a race.

“Peter and I are good friends and he is doing the right thing with Atta Boy Dan. (Trainer) Mike Watson had him and he had him phenomenal. Peter had him so good too. I know he has some serious setbacks and he’s made everyone who has owned him a happy person.”

Larkin said he performed research before claiming Atta Boy Dan.

“It was between him and another horse,” Larkin said. “Atta Boy Dan had so much class and competed every week. He was almost always in the money.

“He has an amazing following, somewhat like the following the great Foiled Again had. It took me five weeks to get him. He is loved by everyone who has had him.”

Palone and Watson agree that Atta Boy Dan hasn’t just captured the hearts of his various owners, trainers, and drivers, but also his grooms and others he’s come in contact with.

“My daughter Hanna looked after him,” Palone said. “Every time he raced, it was a family affair. It made things so much fun for all of us. When he left (The Meadows), Hanna hated it.”

Watson said his children became involved with the horse when he served as Atta Boy Dan’s trainer.

“I loved that old horse and my kids loved him, too,” Watson said. “He is all heart, all business.

“He has his quirks. He didn’t want to train hard all the time. He kind of just did what he wanted to and then just take off when he wanted. He has bad feet, but we took good care of him.

“Atta Boy Dan is all racehorse. He just keeps on moving.”

Larkin said the time off he and Pellegrino decided to give Atta Boy Dan is to ensure the horse will be ready to race and do so effectively early in 2021. The gelding is currently stabled at Big Z Stables in New Jersey.

“He just hasn’t had a break in a long time,” Larkin said.

All that have been or are associated with him say don’t count out Atta Boy Dan as a 12-year-old.

“I have raced thousands of horses,” Palone said. “I have raced faster horses. But none tougher than him.”

John Sacco is a freelance writer living in Pennsylvania. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

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