End of an Era

Pompano Park remembered as a place for champions—and championship racing

by Kathy Parker

On April 17, 2022, Pompano Park closed out 58 years as a venue for live pari-mutuel harness racing. As expected, it was a bittersweet night as the harness racing community lamented the south Florida track’s closing and the disruption of lives, but there were also many memories shared about times spent training and racing horses at the Pompano Beach, Fla., racing complex.

A presence of more than a half a century is something worth celebrating, but Pompano’s closing was tinged with disappointment because it was hastened by a massive gaming compact between the state of Florida and the  Seminole Tribe of Florida. The gaming compact contains language which allows gaming at Pompano Park without live harness racing. Prior to the $500 million compact, expanded gaming at the track was only permitted if live harness racing took place on the premises. Due to the lobbying efforts of the track’s owners, at first The Isle Corp. and later Caesars Entertainment, the linking of pari-mutuel harness racing and gaming at Pompano Park was removed from the new compact, an action which became referred to as decoupling.

 

Pompano Park’s final chapter was written on a warm spring Easter night, under a full moon, with its biggest crowd in years on the condensed apron and in the small open-air stands. The track’s iconic six-story grandstand and clubhouse had been closed to patrons for several years. The final program featured 16 betting races, which generated a handle of $1,430,824, the third largest in the track’s history.

A few who were regular participants at Pompano’s first season in 1964 were in attendance: Hall of Famer Bill Popfinger, retired horseman Tom Merriman, and 60-year employee Charlie Adams, a member of the track maintenance crew. Merriman led the first post parade for the closing-night program.

Between races, the winner’s circle was the stage for tributes to many who made their mark at Pompano, starting with the track’s founders, the late Frances and Fred Van Lennep, owners of Castleton Farm as well as the Red Mile and the Wolverine Raceway license.

The Van Lenneps had become familiar with an old, failed Thoroughbred track in Pompano Beach and bought the property to train their Castleton Farm stable of horses during the winter months. A few years later, they envisioned bringing pari-mutuel harness racing to the property. It took years of lobbying at the state capital in Tallahassee before the Van Lenneps were able to secure a pari-mutuel racing license for the sport and build a track on property adjacent to the training center.

After the Van Lenneps spent time and money to secure the license and build the track, their work continued as they poured their energies and finances into Pompano Park, which was quickly billed as the “Winter Capital of Harness Racing.”

 

In the track’s early years, the adjacent training center and its stables full of stars were used to full advantage, with an annual “Parade of Champions” featuring the prior season’s top performers in each division.

With eventual Hall of Fame publicist Allen J. Finkelson in residence at the track, and the New York Yankees spending spring training just a few miles away, Pompano Park became a place for Yankee boss George Steinbrenner—along with former and current Yankee stars—to hang out.

Finkelson also became known for adding some madcap promotions to the list of Pompano attractions, including races between elephants, zebras and camels, often with popular Hall of Famers such as Billy Haughton and Delvin Miller participating.

 

Frances Van Lennep died in 1971, but her husband’s efforts to promote harness racing at Pompano Park continued. In the late 1980s, Fred Van Lennep, along with his right-hand man, John Cashman Jr., began discussing showcasing the new Breeders Crown series at Pompano Park. Van Lennep and Cashman were instrumental in creating the Breeders Crown under the auspices of the Hambletonian Society, and they initially saw the series as a traveling show of sorts, with no more than one event placed at a track.

But the two leaders later gravitated toward a huge one-track destination event with major sponsorship, pre-race parties to entice attendance by owners and breeders, and all of the sport’s best horses on one track on one weekend.

The Breeders Crown championship nights at Pompano Park—with all eight events for 2- and 3-year-olds on one night in 1989, and all 12 races over two weekends in 1990—produced some of the track’s largest crowds and highest handles at the time and were broadcast live on the fledgling ESPN sports network.

In terms of record attendance, however, it was impossible to top the crowd which descended on Pompano on Dec. 27, 1980, to see the great Niatross. The last career start by the sport’s star was such a must-see event that it created gridlock on adjacent roads and forced the track to close its gates.

Writing the track’s press release about Niatross’s appearance, Gary Seibel reported as follows: “The gates were opened a half hour earlier than usual for the special occasion and by the time it was all over, a countless number of cars and an estimated crowd of 5,000 people had to be turned away. Yet, over 23,000 persons streamed into Pompano Park on Saturday night, demolishing the previous attendance record of 11,168, set Nov. 24, 1978. Cars were backed up to the Florida Turnpike in one direction and to Interstate 95 in the other direction, making traffic flow in the area next to impossible.”

Fred Van Lennep died in 1987 and his estate continued to operate Pompano Park until 1994, when it was sold to Isle of Capri Casinos. The training side property was quickly closed and developed.

Card rooms were approved at pari-mutuel venues in Florida, then in 2005—as Isle of Capri Casinos had hoped—gaming was expanded following approval by a county referendum. Beginning in April 2007, Pompano Park’s gaming menu expanded from horse racing and poker rooms to slots.

Isle of Capri owned Pompano Park for 13 years before it saw its hopes for expanded gaming realized, but one goal remained due to the property’s prime location just off Interstate 95 in the populous south Florida corridor between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale: development.

When Pompano’s slot operation opened, Allan Solomon, executive vice president and general counsel of Isle of Capri, was clear about the company’s goals: development of the more than 220 acres to include a convention center, shopping areas, and possibly housing.

Plans for development were eventually submitted to the Pompano Beach planning commission, and there was no five-eighths-mile racing oval on the blueprints.

The final nail in the track’s coffin was the omnibus gaming compact which decoupled harness racing—but not Thoroughbred racing—from a gaming license.

On closing night, Panocchio, the track record holder at 1:48.3, won for the 51st time at Pompano, some seven seasons after setting the track mark. Wally Hennessey, the track’s all-time leading driver, was one of many who spoke in the winner’s circle of the track’s influence on his life, and after his last of four wins—with Panocchio in the track’s last race—he saluted the grandstand as a final goodbye. HB

To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

 

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