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A Different Kind of Ending
The king is dead, long live the king.
The Winter Capital of Harness Racing is no more. The #Senditin army has laid down it’s arms and raised the white flag 🏳. The South Florida territory that once was a pari-mutual wagering oasis in a country that resisted gambling is now a barren wasteland in that same country now obsessed with it. Like the numerous jai-alai frontons and dog tracks, like Tropical Park and Hialeah and Calder before it, part of the once wildly popular Miami metro area gambling scene, Pompano Park has been put to rest.
This was no surprise, the end had been creeping closer for years now. Despite some accounts claiming that decoupling legislation passed last spring as part of a gaming compact between the Seminole Tribe and the state of Florida was to blame, the truth is that Caesar’s or whatever division of the gambling behemoth technically owns the Pompano property, had been planning its demise for years. The facts are that they do have a successful casino there but it takes up only a small footprint of the property, there is a massive amount of prime real estate located on land that is fortuitously located a short distance between the two major south Florida highways. That land is simply too valuable to continue to utilize as a harness racing facility regardless of how much revenue the virtuoso director of racing, track announcer, social media whiz and General of the #senditinarmy, the indefatigable Gabe Prewitt could squeeze out of the pari-mutual side.
Make no mistake about it, David always loses to Goliath in the 21st century racing world and the Pomp’s fate was no different than Arlington or Hollywood or Bay Meadows or Suffolk or Calder or Roosevelt or Liberty Bell or Brandywine or Garden State or Atlantic City or the next track soon to be placed on the chopping block. When Pompano opened in 1964 racing was Goliath on the American gambling scene though it would have been difficult to imagine in those days of yesteryear how the circumstances would change. The bottom line however is that racing didn’t consider the future and never attempted to grow the game, for the most part the various industry factions just worked to extract as much oil from those handle wells as possible. Now the wells are drying up or in Pompano’s case, even reinvigorated reserves still aren’t rich enough to stave off the real estate barbarians at the gate.
None of this is really news nor has it changed the habits of an industry which is still very much in danger of rolling right past the massive neon sign with the flashing lights saying ‘Point of no Return’, soon to drive right off that cliff called Sports Betting. Instead of embracing the lessons that sports wagering has taught us about the shifting gambling market during the brief time it’s been legalized, racing seeks to try to siphon customers from them. Read that again. A relatively new industry emerges in the gambling market, has wild success right off the bat and the established, 100 year old industry which is LOSING customers to the new industry isn’t saying “how can we adapt our model to neutralize the advantages that they are capitalizing on” or in plain terms, “let’s copy what they are doing that is so attractive to our former players.” Nope. It’s “hey let’s get on the same platform as they are on and maybe by osmosis we can get some of the sports wagering guys to give us a try despite our very obvious warts (pricing/high takeout, small fields, wild odds fluctuations during races, etc)”. Which sounds more promising to you?
“Adapt or die” never seems to resonate with the racing leaders and suits that are supposed to be the stewards of the game. We don’t get change, we get the same presentation using the same format with the same people at the same price. We don’t get strategic plans to deal with issues like horse shortages (supply) which are truly owner shortages (demand), we get shoulder shrugs and “what can we do’s?”. Instead of considering a different path, we get more Pompano’s and Calder’s and Maywood’s and the poster child for killing the sport, Arlington Park’s.
The ‘racing Twitter’ sage of the great white North, @Pullthepocket quipped about the Pompano closing night when he said, “I find it quite nostalgic when a racetrack closes. In other sports the stadium or arena goes, but we know it’s replaced with another newer one. Tracks, they just go.”
RIP Pompano Park 1964 - 2022
What Pompano Park meant to me and final night follies
When I was a kid growing up in Saratoga one of my very first jobs was working at the harness track there. I worked for a bit in the parking lot, was at the races and simulcasting all the time and ultimately became friends with a trainer named John Brennan. He correctly pegged my youthful enthusiasm for racing would lead to cheap labor for him! At first I washed jog carts, cleaned stalls and gave baths to the horses before learning how to put the equipment and bandages on and ultimately to jog the horses themselves. For me it was an exciting new world inside those gates, I was a kid working in a grownup world but it hardly seemed like work, especially considering the meager pay. We knew about Pompano Park, watched the famous Breeders Crowns from there when they were on ESPN but mostly it seemed like it was a million miles away especially during those frigid upstate New York winters.
Ultimately life sent me in different directions, getting a couple of college degrees, working as assistant racing secretary at Yonkers (John got my foot in the door there) before gravitating over to the backside on the thoroughbred side. I still followed harness racing some but when I got a job with a trainer that went to Gulfstream for the winter I finally got my first up close look at Pompano Park.
It was different then in the 90’s, the old grandstand was still in use and though the crowds weren’t enormous like they were at its peak, there was still enough people that you felt a a buzz go through the place when a horse blitzed through a rapid half mile time. I can’t say that I was in love or even all that enamored with the Pomp in those days, it was still a pain in the ass to drive from Hallandale fighting that the winter South Florida traffic.
Things changed when I relocated full-time to South Florida in the fall of 2014. The house that I rented was in Pompano Beach, just off of Atlantic Avenue and only a short 10 minute ride to the track. Unfortunately my soon to be ex-wife and I were having difficulties and the Pomp became a refuge of sorts for me. Home life was becoming increasingly stressful and I found myself hanging out at the track more and more. The old building while still standing was not in use anymore but the functional mini-grandstand attached to the main casino building was fine. It that had an outside bar where Canadian French was the language of choice and Marlboro smoke replaced most of the oxygen. I started to follow the local horses, figure out how the track played, learned the drivers and trainers and actually kept notes on trips and stuff. Playing the low take pick 4 was my first focus and wasn’t too long before I was playing the whole card. There were some nice scores, a lot of mediocre nights and a few tough beats (I’m still mad at Fern Paquet) but importantly the place became a really comfortable place for me. The Pomp was a no frills racing operation, hell after COVID they didn’t even have a concession stand anymore, but that was part of the appeal. The only person that won at crazy rates was Hall of Fame driver Wally Hennessy who simply was lengths better than his competition.
Even after I got divorced, I made sure that I rented an apartment that was in close proximity to the Pomp. I was hooked at that point and the strange thing was that there was no outward reason why other than the place was like an old, well worn sweater that you couldn’t part with. One day I got a message from the King of the Pomp himself, Gabe Prewitt asking if I could join him on the prerace show as his sidekick the PR maven John Berry was having some health issues that was going to keep him sidelined for awhile. I didn’t know Gabe well at that point but was flattered that he asked and had a great time doing that 10 minute spot with him. To this day I’m still not sure how he came up with the idea to ask me but I’m happy he did and I’m proud to call him a friend.
You’d think that I would have been there almost every night this last season, soaking it in before it went away for good. Honestly I didn’t go all that much, something about the morbid finality, knowing that there wasn’t going to be a reprieve, that last date seemed to be closing in. I did make it out a couple times a month, hungout with my old friend from the Yonkers days, Jack Rice in the paddock a few times, but it wasn’t the same. I didn’t invest the time or energy into watching races or even playing much, I just wasn’t into it.
The match race (The Senditin Derby or Battle of the Big mouths) that Gabe and Gulfstream announcer Peter Aiello put together was brilliant. With assistance from Jason Beem, announcer of Tampa and Colonial fame, the grassroots promotion was a huge hit, genuinely entertaining and best of all raised a lot of money for standardbred and thoroughbred aftercare. It was proof that engaging personalities, genuine enthusiasm, and a super competitive horse race can lead to a memorable night at the races without spending any money at all.
I wasn’t sure what Sunday night was going to be like. I was at Arlington Park last summer and felt palpable despair. Calder/Gulfstream Park West was such a shell of itself that closing felt like more a mission of mercy than anything. The Pomp was different though. Yes it was not what it once was but the engagement that Gabe provided on social media was such a connection for so many that there was real sadness felt. So many people had become internet friends because of the Pomp, making fun of the power outages or broken down starting cars or horses that refused to leave the track (I was actually in the booth with Gabe the night that happened) or the unique language of Buck Swope @shottakintime who was alive for a pallet if only Hips Chindano can get there and everyone goes to the stripees afterwards. Unexpectedly seeing Jason Beem that afternoon at Gulfstream should have clued me in that the place was gonna be packed and packed it was. A typical Sunday night card of racing generally drew maybe 150 people between the simulcast guys and the people outside. When I saw that the regular parking lot was full upon arrival that made it official, the Pomp was going out with a bang.
Just this season they started serving a BBQ dinner on Sunday nights only and to be fair it was a pretty good meal. I had intended on getting one last plate of Pomp spareribs as dinner but when I arrived after the second race I found they were already sold out! There were people lining the track apron, the benches and grandstand seats were full. My friend Rob, a veteran of the Roosevelt Raceway days was there. NC Tony was in town for a wedding and made sure he was there for the last rites. I saw Dave and Aaron and Evan and Doug who had worked for the legend Billy Haughton back in the day and hadn’t been out to Pompano Park in 41 years. Mike and Messiah and Gene and Ashley from Gulfstream and so many others. Pete Aiello was now announcing as Gabe conducting the winners circle ceremonies. The aforementioned Jason Beem was back on the scene as were the picture taking duo Ryan and Nicole and I met a podcast follower named Walter who also happens to be a great photographer as well. Mark Weaver was there and so many others that I recognized from seeing them at the track over the years but still don’t know their names. The races were going off as they usually do but there were 16 of them and Gabes prediction that we’d be watching the last tribute video by Chris Tully after the finale at 11:30 seemed wildly optimistic. Then Panocchio, the all-time fastest horse at the Pomp, the all-age track record holder mustered all of his class and what’s left of the speed in his 12 year old legs and jogged in race 14 with his old friend Wally steering. It was his tenth consecutive season with a win at the Pomp! On the way back to the winners circle for the 51st time at Pompano Park, Wally stood up in the bike and gave us something to remember.
Before race 15 the ubiquitous Pete (side note Pete’s car has no spare tire or donut much to the surprise of Beemie and I) decided that we (Beemie, myself Messiah and Pete) should explore the old grandstand building in search of the mysterious Pompano mugs that he was told existed on the 5th floor.
Well truth be told we didn’t find the mugs or much of anything up there except dust and the ghosts of years past but it was a welcome respite from what was sure to be an emotional final race at the Pomp.
That Wally Hennessy won the final race ever conducted at Pompano Park was more than fitting and capped off a final night that felt oddly ok by the end of it. Perhaps we were all just exhausted by the time the last tribute video was shown on the big screen after that racing finale as it was past 12:30 am at that point. Walking out that last time I tried to focus on the fact that my feet hurt, not that I will likely never walk this path to the parking lot again, a route that I had traveled a hundred times before.
Driving out the side gate onto Powerline road one last time I felt remorse for all the people that loved the place, the workers and horseman that had spent a good portion of their lives there. I felt badly for Gabe who pushed through that finale despite emotions that must have pulled in in ten different ways. Mostly I felt frustrated that an old friend was leaving us, that there really isn’t anyway to replace them and how all of us in the racing world should be prepared to face our own racing mortality when the grim reaper shows up at the next stop on his Death to Racing tour ☠️.