12/02/2002 12:00AM

Auctioneer and horse owner Laddie Dance dies at 76

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Milton "Laddie" Dance Jr., the co-owner of 2000 champion older horse Lemon Drop Kid and a prominent former auctioneer, died of a heart attack last Thursday at his home in Manalapan, Fla., according to family members. He was 76.

Dance, who owned horses for more than 30 years, raced Lemon Drop Kid with his wife, Jeanne Vance. During the colt's championship season, Lemon Drop Kid won the Whitney, Suburban, and Brooklyn handicaps as well as the Woodward Stakes. In 1999, Lemon Drop Kid won the Belmont Stakes.

In the sales ring, Dance was known for a raspy voice and colorful style during 40 years with the Fasig-Tipton company.

"He was the best there ever was, that's all," said Steve Dance, a nephew who is an auctioneer for Fasig-Tipton. "I couldn't even begin to tell you all I learned from him. So much of selling, about the rhythms of when to sell and how to sell, is about listening. I listened a lot."

Charles Nuckols Jr., the owner of Nuckols and Sons Farm in Kentucky and a longtime friend of Dance, said: "He could spot a warm body better than anyone I ever knew."

Dance was born into an auctioneering family in Maryland on Sept. 29, 1926. His father, Milton Dance Sr., founded his own auction company in 1912 to appraise and sell real estate and farm equipment. Dance followed his father into the trade and went to work for Fasig-Tipton in the early 1950's.

Dance later married Marge Finney, the daughter of Humphrey Finney, a Fasig-Tipton executive, and the couple divorced in the early 1960's. He met Vance in 1963 at an auction in Kentucky, and the two were married in 1965. They divorced in 1987 but remarried eight years later.

During their first marriage, Dance and Vance raced as Taylor's Purchase Farm, the name of a breeding and selling operation they ran in Glencoe, Md. In 1984, the couple won the Gotham Stakes with the 3-year-old Bear Hunt.

After retiring from Fasig-Tipton, Dance founded an auction company in 1993 with John S. Finney, the former chairman of Fasig-Tipton and the son of Humphrey Finney. The company, Horsemen's Bloodstock Services, folded in 1995 shortly after John S. Finney's death.

Dance had surgery in the late 1960's to treat throat cancer, which some people believed to be the cause of his gravelly voice. Six years ago, according to family members, he had open-heart surgery.

At the age of 18, Dance served in a torpedo-bomber unit in World War II in the Pacific. Among the men in the unit was Paul Newman, the actor. Steve Dance said that his uncle frequently told stories about his military experience. The stories reflected on how "Laddie could live life to the fullest," Steve Dance said.

"He told me one story where they made him an MP, and his job was to make sure the recruits didn't drink on the train from Norfolk to Wilmington," Steve Dance said. "I don't think he was the right man for that job."

A memorial service will be held on Thursday at Chestnut Grove Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Md.