by Jessica Hallett
Native New Yorker had huge presence at South Florida track
Pompano Park has played a key role in Fred Segal’s life and career and, as is the case with many others connected to the track, its demise has closed a lengthy chapter in his life. He remembers the track’s glory years well and has his favorite memories.
“My favorite events at Pompano Park were when all the Breeders Crown races were held there,” he said of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when horses like Artsplace and Mack Lobell turned in iconic performances. “I got to work as the stage manager for the live ESPN broadcasts. It was a challenge because we were dealing with a live broadcast and not something that could be edited before it aired.”
Counting down the days in late March, Segal said, “I am very disappointed with the prospects of Pompano closing. It has always been special to me. I met and married my wife, Kathleen Dempsey, at Pompano Park. John Van Lennep, whose mother Frances Dodge Van Lennep founded the track, was best man at our wedding.
“I feel it is a travesty if another location is not found to keep the sport alive in this state.”
Segal’s involvement in harness racing was ignited through both of his grandfathers. He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1954. Most of his childhood was spent in Rockland and Orange Counties in New York as his family had a farm in Middletown, N.Y., not far from Monticello Raceway. Although at the age of 16 he moved to South Florida, where he has resided ever since, his connection to harness racing had been cemented.
“My father’s father, Abraham Segal, purchased stock for me in Monticello Raceway when it had first opened,” Segal said. “My mother’s father, William Rosenblum, owned racehorses. With a gentleman named Leo Blanc, Rosenblum opened Ponce DeLeon Raceway as a harness track in Bayard, Fla. (near Jacksonville).”
Segal attended his first harness race at the age of two in August 1956. It was the Hambletonian at Good Time Park in Goshen, a race won by The Intruder. He vividly recalls the creation of Pompano Park in the early 1960s, with the track opening in 1964.
“Pompano Park needed a racing and wagering license in order to become an official harness track, but it was not enough to simply get the permit,” he said.
Segal recalls that bleachers from a defunct South Florida track were floated up the coast via boat and trucked to the track. All the traffic lights between the sea and track had to be removed to get the seats to the track on Atlantic Ave. in Pompano Beach.
The track sat on newly acquired property adjacent to a popular winter training center that had served horsemen for years. Pompano Parkway separated the two tracts. The training center closed and was sold in 2000, and today that land is buried under a Wal-Mart and empty warehouses.
Segal also owned and raced horses at Pompano Park for years. In 1979, he joined two others in launching the weekly Florida Racing Review newspaper. A year later, he was the sole owner and manager of the paper.
“One of my most favorite times was spent producing my weekly newspaper and talking with the various people there,” said Segal. “The people involved there in every aspect of the sport were dedicated and always open to talk to me, whether grooms, blacksmiths, drivers, owners or trainers. All were good, dedicated people.”
Segal would often find himself in the Pompano Park grandstand or clubhouse and became friendly with George Steinbrenner, former principal owner and managing partner of the New York Yankees from 1973 to 2010.
“Steinbrenner had this tough-guy image,” Segal said, “but if I had mentioned a groom or someone with financial difficulty, he would give me money for them under one condition: no one would ever know where it was from. He was a very kind man under the exterior of that tough-guy image.
“Actually, one year George sent a package from Tampa in overnight mail to me in Pompano without my knowledge. Seven years later, I got a call from a post office informing me of a package they had found. Inside was a 2009 World Series ring from George.”
Segal, too, has been involved in charitable endeavors. He helped create the Allen J. Finkelson Scholarship, which still awards scholarships to Florida college students studying journalism and communications.
Finkelson was a giant in harness racing public relations, starting his career at Monticello Raceway. Segal knew Finkelson for years, first meeting him at Ponce DeLeon.
John Berry, longtime publicity director at Pompano Park, has worked alongside Segal for many years.
“Fred was a longtime owner with an all-encompassing involvement in journalistic and legislative matters,” said Berry. “His Florida Racing Review publication was legendary and put harness racing in the limelight continuously. Also, when we brought our sport outside the track with shows at the malls throughout Florida, Fred was always there giving everyone an education about our great sport.”
Pompano Park was not only the location of Segal’s racing career and the friends that resulted; it was also where he met and married Kathleen Dempsey.
Demspey worked as a magazine editor but also jogged and trained horses every Saturday at Pompano Park. One day, one of the horses she was training happened to be one of Fred’s. He thanked her for showing him what his filly was capable of and invited her to breakfast, but she politely declined given the day’s work ahead of her with many more to train.
Two years later, in 1989, Fred and Kathleen married in the Pompano Park winner’s circle in the presence of friends and family, who were seated in chairs set up trackside.
“There were 135 guests in attendance, mostly horsemen, and each guest had a race program with them. Thankfully there were no TVs during our ceremony and celebration, but every so often a guest would run out to place a bet,” Dempsey said with a laugh.
“My daughter, Lisa, was my maid of honor and my son, Rob, gave the bride away. His kids were the ring bearer and flower girl. Fred and I both shared and still share a love of the horses and of Pompano Park.”
Segal’s best man, John Van Lennep, appreciates his friend’s many years of dedication to harness racing in Florida.
“The best thing that I can say about Fred Segal is that he was always there,” he said. “No matter what needed to get done—an event or a racing circuit—he always wanted to help.
“We would go up to Tallahassee and rent a booth together and promote the Sunshine State Stakes. He was always upbeat with a ‘let’s get it done’ attitude.”
After owning Standardbreds of his own, Segal decided to take a leadership position within the sport as president of the Florida Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association (FSBOA). He served in the position from 1991 through 2001. He helped develop the Sunshine State Stakes and even served as presiding judge and program director to put on the races.
“Traveling around the state to various training centers was always a very enjoyable time,” said Segal. “It gave me the opportunity to observe training at the specific facilities around the state as well as the ability to interact with some people involved in the sport who I didn’t always have the opportunity to talk with at the racetrack.”
Segal has also been an advocate for harness racing and Standardbred breeding as an agricultural business and realized the importance of the connection many years ago. He made the decision to become active with the Broward County (Florida) Farm Bureau in 1992, when legislation involving the equine industry was being proposed.
“I approached the farm bureau in my role as president of the Florida Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association to ask for their support, since they had more clout with the legislature. The Florida Farm Bureau has more than 100,000 members,” said Segal. “I was told that before they would take a stance on an issue, they had to have policy to allow it. At that time, they had not been involved in equine issues and I was informed that it would require an Equine Advisory Committee to be established. This would first require three county farm bureaus to establish local advisory committees.
“Thus, I took on the challenge and started by approaching Broward Farm Bureau. They were receptive to the idea but said that I would have to become a member, and then they would start a local advisory group. I was then able to get Palm Beach and Marion County farm bureaus to also start local committees. With that accomplished, Florida Farm Bureau agreed to establish a statewide committee and I was appointed to it.”
Within the first three months of becoming a member of the Broward Farm Bureau, Segal was approached to serve on the board. Not only did he become a board member, but he was also elected treasurer, and in 1993 he became president, an elected position he still holds today.
Despite all of Segal’s advocacy—and the support and lobbying of many others—Pompano Park could not be saved from development once the Florida state legislature passed the gaming law that allowed for gaming at the location without the operation of a live pari-mutuel harness racing meet. Thoroughbred racing, meanwhile, received different treatment from the legislature, and pari-mutuel Thoroughbred racing must still take place at Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs for gaming to be conducted at those sites.
Reflecting on the closure of Pompano Park, Segal hopes that, in the current economic climate, the harness racing industry can survive and, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, grow. Either way, he has certainly been a part of harness racing’s glory days at Pompano Park. And he will continue his association with promoting harness racing as vice president of the Florida Chapter of the U.S. Harness Writers Association. HB
Jessica Hallett is a freelance writer living in Florida. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.