Today marks the 50th anniversary of the opening night of harness racing at Pompano Park, named the "Winter Capital of Harness Racing" by its founder, innovator and leader Frederick Van Lennep and his original management team.
Built on a large 300 acre plus parcel that today is occupied by Wal-Mart and a host of commercial enterprises (on what was the mile track and training center), and across Racetrack Rd. by the Isle Casino Racing Pompano Park, the structure and its storied past, are best recalled by remembering Van Lennep, who passed away in June 1987. The Sun-Sentinel's remarks about Van Lennep are shown below:
"He was 100 percent class," said Hall of Fame driver Stanley Dancer. "It wasn`t just that he had a nice word for everybody. He always had time for you. And he was a generous man. There was nothing he wouldn`t do to help anyone."
Dancer, though, remembered a time he helped Van Lennep after putting his friend though a little bit of worry. "I had a horse in 1975 named Bonefish that I wanted to sell for a stallion," said Dancer, who served with Van Lennep on the board of directors of the United States Trotting Association.
"Mr. Van Lennep told me he wanted to buy it. I told him it would cost him $1 million. He said fine and the deal was completed that fast." "I came back and drove that horse for him later that year in the Hambletonian. It was a four-heat race, and we finished ninth in the first heat. In the second heat, we finished third. We finally won the last two heats to win the race, but not after we got everybody worried."
Van Lennep, who headed Castleton Inc., one of the leading standardbred breeding operations in the country, was best known as an innovator in the harness industry. What many people did not realize was that Van Lennep, who was born in Philadelphia on July 6, 1911, was an innovator in other areas as well.
"Few people knew that my father had a very impressive physics background," said Hector Van Lennep, a retired general manager at Pompano. "After he graduated from Princeton (1933), he invented a motor that became the basis for the Sperry gyroscope. He was a firm believer in solid fuel propellants long before there was a fuel shortage, and he developed a process to freeze-dry coffee and citrus juice for soldiers fighting in Korea. He was always an innovator."
Van Lennep did not become involved in the horse industry until he married his first wife Celeste McNeal. "My mother was quite an equestrian; in fact, she was the first woman to get a thoroughbred trainer`s license," Hector Van Lennep said. "My father was more or less dragged into the business, but he quickly loved it. He became a `gentleman driver` for a lot of amateur races, and he became more in love with the industry."
Van Lennep opened Pompano Park in 1964, and doggedly kept the track open though it lost money in its first few seasons. His efforts did not go unnoticed, as he was voted to the Hall of Fame of the Trotter in Goshen, N.Y., in 1975.
"His death is a deep, deep loss to the racing industry," said William E. Simon, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, who was a partner of Van Lennep`s in Pompano Park and in the ownership of several horses. "I first met him in 1977, and I have never known a finer man. He brought so much class and integrity to the industry. There is no way to gauge how much he`ll be missed." One of Van Lennep`s major concerns was the Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of. Last September, the university established a $1 million endowed professorship in Van Lennep`s name in hopes of luring top scientists to the center. Simon donated $250,000 toward the endowment.
"My father had a lot of favorite horses," said Hector Van Lennep. ":He lovedbecause he won the Triple Crown. He watched that horse grow and win the Triple Crown and it was very special to him."
"But there was another horse named Worthy Boy. Every time he saw my father, he would talk to him. It never failed. As soon as he saw father, this loud whinny would come out. He just had a special affinity toward my father. A lot of people did, too."
Pompano Park, under the leadership of Van Lennep and later John Cashman, Jr., was at the forefront of harness racing's best competition. It hosted the Breeders' Crown, in whole or part, from 1984-1993, producing some of the series' best performances by its best equine stars.
Pacing events that I recall vividly are Bay's Fella that won the 1990 Open Pace forin a huge upset, Call For Rain in 1987 for trainer/driver in the Three Year-Old Colt pace, Miss Easy in the 1991 Three Year-Old Filly pace and ' four-timer in the Two Year-Old Filly pace with Central Park West, Miss Easy, Hazleton Kay and Immortality. Legendary took the 1990 Two Year-Old Colt pace for the late great trainer .
On the trotting side, the Breeders' Crown got its Florida start in 1984 when Baltic Speed took the Three Year-Old Colt trot for Jan Nordin, starting off a European impact on the trotting divisions.
Other three year-old winners at Pompano included legendarytrainees and and not so legendary Esquire Spur, Embassy Lobell (trained by ), Giant Victory (trained by Per Eriksson) and Baltic Striker.
also won the Two Year-Old Breeders' Crown at Pompano in 1986 and was followed by in 1988 and then (trained and driven by Ocala's Carl Allen), Crysta's Best (trainer/driver Dick Richarson, Jr.), Eriksson's King Conch and Giant Chill and trainer Raz MacKenzie's in 1993. Two Year-Old filly winners at Pompano included the trainer Peace Corps, Eriksson's Delphi's Lobell, Soren Nordin's Jean Bi, trained Armbro Keepsake and Winky's Goal and Gleam, owned by Mal Burroughs who won the Hambletonian Oaks driving this filly.
Peace Corp returned to Pompano to capture the Breeders' Crown at age three for trainerand as an aged mare in 1990 for then trainer/driver in 1:54.2f., a time mark that was not lowered until 2004 and that on a mile track. Other memorable Three Year-Old Filly Breeders' Crown winners at Pompano included Sylvester's Armbro Devona, Armbro Fling, Me Maggie ( trained, driven), Twelve Speed, Imperfection (1992 winner trained by ) and Expressway Hanover. And in the Aged Open category, who can forget the 1990 score in 1:55f by No Sex Please, the son of Brisco Hanover bred by Lennox, trained by Ron Waples, Jr. and reined by Ron Waples (he won the same event two years later at Mohawk).
Pompano Park enjoyed a fine run at the top of standardbred racings' leaderboard and remains in-action today with its attractive 126 race-day fall-winter-spring meet, simulcasting and as host to the Florida Breeders' Stakes program. Many Grand Circuit two year-olds are developed annually on the five-eighths mile raceway and South Florida also attracts a host of well-bred hopefuls at the Sunshine Meadows and South Florida Trotting Center facilities with trainers including those who won the early Breeders' Crown events at Pompano.
by Thomas H. Hicks for Harnesslink.com