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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

BYE BYE MISS AMERICAN PIE, DROVE MY SULKY TO THE RACEWAY AS THE MARSHALL WENT BY…

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, April 20, 2022— This might be viewed as blasphemous by some, but I was sickened by the thought that Pompano Park will race no more.

Indeed, for me more upsetting than when I first learned Churchill Downs would shutter iconic Hollywood Park, site of Thoroughbred racing’s inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984.

It’s simple to understand, really. Pompano Park was part of my growing up. Didn’t make all that many trips out west, but the harness track in Pompano Beach was a regular if infrequent stop.

Back in the day, dinner with Toni trackside with a five-eighths mile track below. The three-turn configuration took some getting used to for a horseplayer weaned on the half-milers of Westchester and Long Island.

Some of the horses were familiar, a latter day “championship meet” for  some of America’s best trotters and pacers–but many of the silks were:

Stanley Dancer’s blue and gold, Billy Haughton’s green and white, likened to Bill Popfinger’s, and George Sholty’s white and what the mind conjures as maroon.

Also, I think some of Del Insko’s young stock raced there occasionally, but I couldn’t swear to it. All, of course, were New York regulars at Yonkers and Roosevelt Raceway, “where it all began,” and where stands a mall parking lot today.

Over decades, I might have gone racing at Pompano a dozen times, max, but it always was an enjoyable evening, even on nights when winning tickets were scarce.

Not making comparisons, but I did note the irony of the track’s passing on an Easter Sunday, some 58 years after harness racing came to Pompano Beach.

Sixteen races might have been a bit much at this stage, But I regret not having seen the many tributes afforded longtime horsemen who supported the place and loyal employees, now jobless, who made it all happen.

It was reported locally that “a large crowd” was on hand, which rings true. Of course, many tracks were closed Easter Sunday, but a nighttime harness track where a near-record $1.4 million was bet? That’s a lot of souvenirs.

Greed closed this place the same way that money always is a driving force for change–history and tradition be damned in American racing:

Call it Critical Racing Theory and ban my latest track program because it’s made me very upset.

Greed in this case are states needing more revenue, a good goal which would be even better if only the new money was spent on things for the community; money for education that never seems to reach the schools, never mind teachers.

Somehow proceeds always seem to land in the pockets of a chosen, well connected few.

The instrument for Pompano’s demise was a bill passed in the spring of 2021 allowing racino owners to forsake racing because racing is a show that costs money to produce. Slots, blackjack tables and roulette wheels are a pittance in comparison.

Actually, there was serious talk of de-coupling in New York until Albany legislators and the new governor looked up the Northway when it heard lots of noise was being made 30 miles to the north in Saratoga.

Who knows what might have been had the old governor still been in charge. Andrew Cuomo was no friend of racing, seldom if ever celebrating big racing events with his attendance and participation.

In almost all instances, racetracks became racinos because it too wanted a slice of a bigger gaming pie, so casino interests adopted racing by becoming its grandfather but has been trying to estrange itself ever since.

Slowly and systematically, casinos began its abandonment of the very business that gave it birth. Thanks for the use of an existing hall, now go and have a nice, quiet death.

In New York, at least there was some reconstruction at Aqueduct Racetrack even if the upgrades more suited Resorts World’s needs than it did the New York Racing Association’s.

At Pompano Isle Casino, a Caesar’s Entertainment property, they discouraged racetrack attendance from day one, long before de-coupling. You entered Pompano Harness through the equivalent of a side door.

Being unaware that the end was Sunday was my bad, and the racing gods dealt out swift, appropriate punishment.

Twelve-year-old pacer and track record holder Panocchio, reined by Pompano’s all-time leading driver, Wally Hennessey, won his final career start, his 53rd at Pompano Park and 77th overall, and returned to the winner’s circle with Hennessey standing up in the bike.

In an interview with Harness Link, Hennessey spoke to the occasion: “From 1986 to right now, I’ve lived my dream. The unfortunate thing is that I am losing my dream.

“I look from the side of my stable and can see the old grandstand standing there and in my mind, it is as regal as the day it was built…

“I wouldn’t call it depression to talk about the end of racing at Pompano, it’s more like a funeral. That’s the way I feel. And that you can’t control.”

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18 Responses

  1. Lots of former NewYork-NewJersey drivers-trainers stabled at Pompano with fewer,cheaper horses and less expenses and smaller purses. Wonder if ( Empire Casino ) Yonkers raceway will reach that similar fate soon,and not just IF .For the remaining interest of Standardbred,Harness racing,and value,Meadowlands was The Place with larger attendances,more famous drivers too many to mention,faster races,larger entries,,but in an unhappy location with a terrible nickname. All of this makes me mad at what Roosevelt could have been today if,again,politics and dirty lobbying $$ would have stayed away..but it rarely does with greedy Mover$ and $haker$.RIP.

  2. Very well made points and you’re correct about the politics of Roosevelt Raceway’s demise. I have first hand knowledge as I testified at a hearing held investigating the circumstances. Politics won, as did politicians and law firms. Does the name Al D’Amato ring a bell?

    (That was rhetorical; no answer needed, or even wanted. It’s water passing under the bridge).

    So far so good, JG. Please let’s keep it this way. Thank you!

    1. X the past few yrs when I see that last name it has to be about Phil D Amato ,successful horse trainer with jockey step daughter. Alfonse who ??? 😁

      1. Senator Alphonse D’amoto of Long island a few decades ago…

        His brother’s law firm handled the sale of the property!

      1. Alas, McD remembers…

        Curious, did you cut your teeth at Roosevelt Raceway or Belmont Park?

    1. First to admit I perhaps could have done more, but once the announcement was made…

      Meanwhile, thanks for the kind words.

  3. Good stuff – I wonder if they’d ever consider lights at Belmont and some night racing during the week? Feels like it could be pretty huge.

    RIP Midnight Bourbon. So sad

    1. Doc, lights at Belmont has been discussed before relative to Yonkers Raceway’s future, we’ll see what shakes out…

      Oh, and yes Doc, too bad about such a good, honest hard trying Thoroughbred. Would like to see a more detailed explanation of what exactly the “acute gastrointestinal” issue was. I hope an autopsy would reveal more specifics.

  4. BP? Belmont Park or Brooklyn Prep? Never quite sure John, lol. One of ’em I guess. Definitely not RR. Never much trusted the Trotters.

  5. That’s the cliche. But I cut my teeth on harness racing and went almost nightly for years until my second tour at St. John’s.

    I can honestly say, as far as trust is concern, I found Standardbred racing to be no more untrustworthy than things I’ve seen at Thoroughbred tracks.

    PEDs have always been an issue when gambling was the vehicle. Just observe carefully and use your observations as part of the handicapping process. Does that suck? Of course, but worse are elected officials and their PACs.

  6. Whatever the game John, when there’s money on the table the sharks will always be there. “Never enough money to be had, line yer’ pockets with silver lads, there’s just never enough to be had.” Politicians as well. Just a subset of the shark family. From Oscar to Buddy G., trots or flats, never let your guard down. Street Sense is Street Smart is my take. But I just love the athleticism of the thoroughbred weaving his way and splitting horses. Sulky riding just too cumbersome for my interest. Maybe the one mile track would be different. Just too many go arounds at RR.

    I once new an owner of a pacer from East Rockaway who gave me a heads up on his horse six times in a one year period, “Inside Report” was the name. He raced like an old push button Rambler. My friend spaced the wins over the year, winning twice at RR, twice at Yonkers, and twice at Monticello. I cashed at 20-1 on each win, but indirectly, it only added to my distrust. The dogs were even worse. An owner in that game once advised that it was the easiest game in the world to fix. “All you needed to do is overfeed ’em.”

    I’ll stay with the flats thank you. I just loved the passion of the old Mack Miller types of the game. There are still plenty of the good guys still. I suspect right about now, a lot of the race day med crowd are on the run. Hopefully, the game can find its way back to the glory days of old.

    1. Lots to unpack but busy morning, so here goes. There’s a world of difference between harness racing on a mile track and the half milers. Check Meadowlands racing one night when you have time or interest.
      Your harness “inside reporter.”
      There once was a very prominent owner back in the day who had one trainer and one journeyman rider. They would sometimes “easy-race” for month’s worth of bad lines the, when it was go day, he would bet with bookmakers all over the country and in Vegas.
      He was so successful that it helped him begin a professional sports franchise.
      No one has an exclusive on larceny.
      I prefer the runners, too, but will never forget my roots. I love Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing, the quarters less so, and dog racing not at all…

    1. Four letter words should be reserved for Twitter, use them myself in that space. But it won’t be tolerated here. Fortunately, my delete button still works just fine. With apologies to the HRI Faithful, especially our female readers…

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