Yesterday historic Pompano Park celebrated its 50th birthday.
The harness racing dream of Frederick Van Lennep became reality in 1964, when it developed, opened, flourished and following his death in 1987, was managed by the late John A. Cashman, Jr. for the Van Lennep estate.
They had many other assets including Lexington's famous Castleton Farm, Wolverine Raceway, the Red Mile in Lexington and multiple tracks in Italy, until sold in 1994 to Casino America, Inc. (now Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc.). The selling amount was subject to upward adjustment in the event a constitutional amendment was passed permitting casino gambling. The buyers agreed to continue standardbred racing at the facility. The sale followed failed negotiations to sell to the then owners of Hollywood Greyhound Track and Hazel Park near Detroit.
The real story, however, takes place many years before, when in 1926, another racetrack was located on the site. It proved to have an interesting history with government intervention, not unlike today's equine industry. In that in 1926, the $1.25 million construction of the original Pompano Park, with grandstands that could seat 7,000 fans, was completed. The mile track, made of clay and sand, was 100 feet wide and many years later served as the hub of the famous training center at Atlantic Blvd and Powerline Road.
The grand opening was celebrated on Christmas Day 1926 and huge crowds of spectators reportedly poured into Pompano on chartered buses from around Florida. The track might have been an immense success but there was a barrier (in Florida, at that time, pari-mutuel betting was illegal). It said, racing was to start Christmas Day until Governor John Martin branded Pompano Park "a center of law breakers" and threatened to send the military to plow up the track and "plant it in cowpeas" unless racing ceased, and it did. The original Pompano Park was then used for automobile races, Polo and boxing matches, without lasting success.
In 1928, two years after the track opened, a hurricane ravaged South Florida with 2,000 fatalities and many injuries. Pompano Park became a savior as it was used as a Red Cross station to aid more than 1,000 hurricane victims. Subsequently, the track became dormant until 1953, when Fred Van Lennep, then a prominenthorseman and former advertising executive, spotted the old track from an airplane.
Van Lennep saw great potential for a future racetrack. He purchased the land and immediately began plans to construct a new facility. After lobbying for many years, Van Lennep was able to get pari-mutuel legislation on the ballot and in 1962 it was overwhelmingly voted into law.
Van Lennep fulfilled his dream, and his promise, and built what was the well-designed state leader of horse racing tracks.
The new Pompano Park opened on February 4, 1964 to a crowd of nearly 6,600 people. The track featured a "state of the art" grandstand, clubhouse and restaurant facility and for the many owners (who also had access to an owners' club), trainers, drivers and caretakers, three racetracks, two being one mile and half mile training tracks and a five-eighths mile main race track.
Once completed, there were stalls for 2,000 horses, living quarters for more than 500 caretakers, a swimming pool for horses, a nine-hole golf course and driving range. The main facility featured one of the largest dining rooms in South Florida with seating for more than 800 people. Van Lennep's wife, the renowned horsewoman, Francis Dodge Van Lennep, loved pink flamingos and much of the track was painted in that color.
Named the "Winter Capital of Harness Racing", Pompano Park grew in popularity among people in the sport, plus leading celebrities enjoyed their nights at the races. Notables Ed Sullivan, Minnie Pearl, Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, Walter Matthau, Sammy Davis Jr., Rodney Dangerfield, and many others came to Pompano Park regularly along with leading sports figures Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, George Steinbrenner, Arnold Palmer, Charlie Keller and Lee Elder. They were regulars during the season and Ford, Steinbrenner, Palmer and Keller became horse, farm and track owners. Years later, celebs still came out for a night at the races including Pulitzer prize-winning author and columnist Dave Barry, baseball's Dennis Martinez, Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler, UK and NBA basketball's Sam Bowie, also a prominent standardbred horse owner and breeder.
During the 1980 and 90's Pompano Park bloomed at its 331 acre site (including the 180 acre training center that was sold years later for industrial development), hosting the prestigious Breeders Crown numerous times as the world's top Standardbreds, owners, trainers and drivers trained and raced during the winter for some of the sports' richest purses.
Records fell annually with the sports' greatest reinsman, the "Gold Dust Twins" Stanley Dancer and Billy Haughton, calling Pompano Park their winter home. The tracks biggest night was on December 27, 1980 when the great pacerarrived at Pompano Park There were 18,451 fans on-site to see the remarkable pacer, barred from the betting, team with trainer and Hall of Famer to a 1.54.3f win by open lengths. Reportedly another 5,000 fans had to be turned away, as cars were parked on the median divider of Powerline Road and across the street in Palm Aire after all racetrack parking areas had been filled to capacity. Every mutuel pool record was rewritten by the fifth race that evening.
Pompano continued to play a leading role in the Standardbred sport during the early Breeders' Crown years with its Van Lennep Trotting Series that attracted many of the best US aged performers and some Europeans. John Cashman was a great supporter of international racing and the Van Lennep was his and Pompano Park's trotting showcase during that era. One such event I remember best occurred in 1987. Re-live it below with Dave Joseph's memorable stories.
By DAVE JOSEPH, Racing Writer, October 4, 1987
Pompano Harness Track`s $150,000 Frederick Van Lennep Invitational Trotting Series has lured five of the six European trotters that were extended invitations to compete in the two-race series. The Van Lennep, run over a mile track Oct. 24 and a 1 1/4-mile track Oct. 30, will have Germany`s Reado, Norway`s Scott Iran, Finland`s Black Laukko, France`s Quito du Couronne and Big Spender, who has campaigned throughout Europe. The only trotter who declined the invitation was Sweden`s Emile, second twice this year to two-time Breeders Crown winner Grades Singing.
By DAVE JOSEPH, Racing Writer, October 18, 1987
POMPANO BEACH -- For the past four months they have crossed paths. First New Jersey, then New York, finally Illinois. In pursuit of being named Aged Trotter of the Year,, Tabor Lobell and have battled on three tracks. But after the three meet tonight in a $10,000 invitational trot at Pompano Park, the trio will have only two more chances to lay claim to seasonal honors. World record holder , two-time Breeders Crown winner , and Invitational Challenge Cup winner Tabor Lobell will use tonight`s invitational as a prep for Pompano`s upcoming $150,000 Frederick Van Lennep Invitational Trot.
By DAVE JOSEPH, Racing Writer, October 19, 1987
POMPANO BEACH -- It was supposed to be a leisurely prep race; a chance for some of the trotters racing in the upcoming Frederick Van Lennep Invitational to get a feel for Pompano Harness Track. Ah, but it was so much more. World record holder, driven by , trotted the fastest mile in Pompano`s 24-year history Sunday night, clocking 1:56 2/5 in the sixth race, a $10,000 invitational trot. It broke Grade`s Singing`s record set in last year`s Van Lennep by 3/5 of a second.
By DAVE JOSEPH, Racing Writer, October 24, 1987
POMPANO BEACH -- The travel plans, Berth Johansson thought, were firm. Big Spender, his 6-year-old horse, would trot in West Germany Oct. 11, then be shipped to Paris the next night and prepare for his trip to Pompano Park and the Frederick Van Lennep Trotting Series. How much easier could that be, Johansson thought. "We would race Sunday," the Swedish trainer-driver said. "Then he would sleep, wait 24 hours, and then go to Paris Monday night." Simple, right? But four hours after trotting two heats in West Germany, Big Spender was loaded on a train and spent the next 20 hours riding to Paris.
By DAVE JOSEPH, Racing Writer, October 25, 1987
POMPANO BEACH -- The opposition put it this way: "He`s a monster," trainer Jim Gluhm said. "What else can you say?" Gluhm, trainer of Tabor Lobell, was speaking for all of the estimated 6,000 here who witnessed the performance of. The 4-year-old world-record holder won his fifth consecutive race Saturday night when he led throughout the $50,000 Frederick Van Lennep International Challenge over a mile distance at Pompano Park in 1:56 4/5. Reado, an 80-1 long shot from West Germany, finished second by 1/2 lengths.
By DAVE JOSEPH, Racing Writer, October 29, 1987
POMPANO BEACH -- There was really nothing distinctive about that morning, trainer Jim Gluhm said. It was just like any other May morning at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "It was cool," Gluhm said. "And there wasn`t much sunshine." That morning, in fact, probably would have slipped from Gluhm`s mind if it wasn`t for one of his workers running out to the track and saying, bluntly, `What the hell are you doing?` "I was starting to train Tabor Lobell to go a 1 1/4 miles and 1 1/2 miles when the horse`s groom came running out asking me that question," Gluhm said. Tabor could handle the distance as on August 30, 1987 he upset many of the best in the sport to win the 1-1/2 mile $100,000 Challenge Cup at Roosevelt.
Tabor Lobell Wins Challenge Cup: Tabor Lobell, a 25-1 shot driven by Buddy Gilmour, held off Callit of Sweden last night to capture the $100,000 Challenge Cup, a mile-and-a-half invitational trot at Roosevelt Raceway. The 4-year-old son of-The-Pro raced third over most of the event, but caught Callit, winner of the International Trot last week, at the head of the stretch. The two went neck and neck to the finish, and Tabor Lobell won by a head, covering the course in 3:03 3/5. Whip It Wood, driven by John Patterson Jr., took third. Tabor Lobell's victory, only his second in 12 races, was worth $50,000 and pushed his career earnings to $199,095. Tabor Lobell was third in the International Trot behind Sweden's Callit and Potin d'Amour from France. (NY Times archives)
Record Falls in Van Lennep Upsets
By DAVE JOSEPH, Racing Writer, October 31, 1987
POMPANO BEACH -- There was silence on the other end of the line for several seconds before trainer Jim Simpson could express his feeling. "I`m ecstatic," said Simpson. He paused. "I got a tear in my eye." Simpson`s tear came courtesy of, who came out of hiding at Pompano Harness Track Friday night in world record fashion. After finishing second and ninth to in his last two races across Pompano, John Simpson`s returned to form here when he trotted past 4-5 favorite in the final yards to win the $100,000 Frederick Van Lennep International Championship by three-quarters of a length.
with Gunnar Eggen up winning 1988 March of Dimes at Garden State over Ourasi, and
by Thomas H. Hicks for Harnesslink.com