Pompano Beach, FL -- This Saturday night, October 6, the Isle Pompano Park opens for its 50th anniversary season of harness racing.
Don’t know how happy Fred and Frances Dodge Van Lennep would be if they were still around to see what has taken place with the Taj Mahal that they built. They would have loved the casino and raved about it to everyone, but then they would have cried over what has happened to the former Winter Capital of Harness Racing.
Over the years the prior owners and then the Isle never invested much more than a dime or two in keeping the building up to code and now it is in disarray.
The track had opened to much fanfare back on February 4, 1964. The greatest trainers, drivers and horses in the world would winter at Pompano Park. Some 2,000 horses and 500 horsemen and women would stable there during the glory year with four tracks, an executive golf course, driving range and a beautiful track kitchen overlooking the training tracks.
The Top of the Park Dining Room was exquisite with reservations and a jacket (for men) a must. They could seat well over 600 people and everyone had a great view of the track. Patten’s Place on the fifth floor was the ultimate speak easy. The Clubhouse Box seating area sold out months in advance. Now the glass planes are falling out from the sixth floor and you are limited to where you can walk on the track apron.
When Niatross raced for the last time on December 27, 1980, more than 18,000 people jammed the track to see him and the right lane going north on Powerline Road was closed off and used as additional parking. People bought $2 win tickets just to save as souvenirs. Now there is just the Florida Chapter of the US Harness Writers Association’s Florida Hall of Fame picture display left to remind you of the people and horses that made the track great.
The track held the Breeders Crown numerous times with world records set every season….Stanley Dancer, Billy Haughton, Del Miller, Joe O’Brien, Bruce Nickells, Ted Taylor, John Campbell, Bill O’Donnell, Bill Popfinger, Peter Wrenn and many other top horsemen were household names. Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle and Jackie Gleason were weekly regulars during the track’s heydays.
But that is all gone now. If you are lucky you can stand on part of the track apron and watch the races or go up to the casino and watch the horses come around the final turn but you can’t tell who was the winner unless you go inside and look on a TV.
The opening night card features ten races, two of which are Florida Sunshine Stakes for three-year-olds. All-time leading driver Bruce Ranger is back along with Jim McDonald, Tom Sells, Jay & Kim Sears, Tom Audley and some new faces too.
Once the major stakes season is over up north a lot more trainers and drivers will return. Plans call for a shorter season than normal with the meet ending in late May.
Usually the track would have something special for the fans on opening night, maybe a baseball cap, beach towel or t-shirt giveaway. No swag this year. Track management said they will be doing something to commemorate the 50th anniversary so we will sit back and wait and see.
Fred and Frances Van Lennep made their dreams come true for a harness racing Mecca in south Florida. They would be pretty upset if they could see it today.
The track opens up and races live Wednesday and Saturday then add Monday’s on October 14. First race post time is 7:05 pm. Both parking and admission is free.
By Steve Wolf for Harnesslink.com