Harness racing finds NYC photog Walter Wlodarczyk
by Tim Bojarski
The unfortunate closing of Pompano Park last year marked the end of an era for harness racing that saddened everyone in the sport. But as the final days of the track’s existence faded away, its demise led to something positive—through the lens of a newcomer to the Standardbred sport.
Through some serendipitous chat at an online racing forum, New York City-based freelance photographer Walter Wlodarczyk was introduced to Caesars Entertainment’s director of racing Gabe Prewitt, and that led to some award-winning synergy.
Wlodarczyk studied business at the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., and went into accounting upon graduation. However, photography had always been his passion, and he decided to try it as a career. Since then, Wlodarczyk has photographed the arts and music scene for over 10 years, and his work has been published in outlets including The New York Times and Vogue magazine.
Although his work was never in sports, Wlodarczyk had always liked Thoroughbred racing—and that’s what led to his next chapter.
“I was following some accounts on Twitter, and comments about harness racing kept popping up from Gabe Prewitt,” said Wlodarczyk. “So, I decided I had to find out more about him and what he was talking about. That’s how I was introduced to Pompano Park. I was not seeking out harness racing; it kind of found me.
“When I read about the track, its closing, and all the history that was going to be lost, it was hard not to fall in love with the place and the people there who were so passionate about that track and their horses. I thought this would be a perfect racing project for me. So, I got in touch with Gabe and asked him if it would be possible to photograph the final week of racing at the track. He said, ‘Sure,’ and that would literally be the first time I saw harness racing in person.”
First impressions mean a lot, and the one Wlodarczyk got at Pompano was indeed memorable.
“I got there and met Gabe, JB (John Berry) and (track photographer) Jessica (Hallett), and they took me to the barns, where everyone was super welcoming to this outsider,” said Wlodarczyk. “They invited me to take photos and wanted to talk about their horses and their work. Jessica was amazing and helpful to me. Her father (John Hallett) took me jogging in a two-seater (jog cart) and really filled me in on the sport.”
Wlodarczyk spent the next several days taking picture after picture, including shots of the staff for their own remembrance. While he was doing that, he noticed someone he knew from a few years ago.
“I worked in Miami shooting music events and made a lot of friends there over the years,” recalled Wlodarczyk. “And I thought to myself, ‘That looks like my friend Ben (Pachter).’ Then he noticed me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ He worked with audio/video at the track and ran the camera on the backstretch. He suggested I go up and use the camera tower to shoot because of the great views from there. So, I did, and that’s where that one picture came from.”
That one picture, titled “Final Sunset Over Pompano,” won the 2022 George Smallsreed Photography Award in the feature category, presented at the Dan Patch Awards in February.
“My sole purpose for doing this was to document the closing of ‘the Pomp’ and provide some photos to the people who were affected by that closing,” Wlodarczyk said. “When I got home and looked at what I shot, I felt some of them were really cool and put a few online. Gabe shared the sunset photo, and Greg Reinhart of DRF Harness spotted it and thought it could be an award winner. So (DRF editor) Derick Giwner offered to publish it with Ray Cotolo’s April 2022 column.”
As Wlodarczyk was embracing harness racing, the industry embraced him right back—and he felt the passion that the sport’s participants have for it from all his interactions.
“I loved documenting all the work and things that happen behind the scenes: the care given to the horses to get them to the races, the people who give it, and all the hard work they put into their craft,” Wlodarczyk summarized. “I met so many wonderful people during the week at Pompano and at the banquet when I received the award, and that may lead to more harness racing projects for me in the future. I had never gotten any accolades for photography before, so I find it funny that the first thing I did related to this won an award.
“Harness racing is a huge, vibrant world that more people should know about.” HB
Tim Bojarski, past president of the U.S. Harness Writers Association, is a freelance writer living in New York. The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association. To comment on this column, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.