Covering the first night of racing at Pompano Park, which took place on February 4, 1964, Earl Straight of the Fort Lauderdale News had this to say: “Housewire racing has arrived in Broward County and will be with us for a long, long time.”
He wasn’t risking it. With almost no competition for the gaming dollar, all forms of horse racing were thriving back then and there was no reason to believe Pompano would be an exception. It was supposed to be to harness racing what Gulfstream and Hialeah were to thoroughbred racing, the winter capital of the sport. And, for a while, he was. A record was set in 1980 when a crowd of 18,451 filled the stands as Pompano weaved his way between dog racing and jai alai to become a favorite nightspot for South Florida players craving action.
Straight wasn’t exactly wrong. Pompano lasted 58 years, but it’s highly unlikely that back in 1964 he would have imagined harness racing in Florida limping to the finish line in 2022. In a place like Pompano, racing hasn’t mattered for years. It all became the casino and when a bill was passed in May 2021 decoupling casino gaming and pari-mutuel in Pompano, the track’s fate was sealed. Shortly after, owner Caesars Entertainment announced that racing would cease at the end of the 2022 competition. The last night of racing was Sunday.
“I wouldn’t call it a depression to talk about the end of racing at Pompano, it’s more like a funeral,” harness legend and Hall of Famer Wally Hennessey, who has been at Pompano every year, told Harnesslink.com. since 1986. “This is how I feel. And that you can’t control it.”
So what does this have to do with Thoroughbred racing? Plenty. If it can happen to Pompano Park, it can happen to any race track of any race. The threat of decoupling is real and it will not go away. It is a huge and ominous threat.
Most casino companies that own a racetrack don’t want to be in the horse racing business, and most don’t bother to hide their disdain for the sport. But existing laws in most states still require a casino to hold pari-mutuel races in order to maintain its casino license.
That’s not exactly the case in Florida. First, we saw Churchill Downs Inc. find a loophole in the law that allowed them to replace the races at Calder/Gulfstream Park West with a jai alai operation and still maintain their casino. The other casino companies in the state continued to push for disengagement and last spring they won the battle and the war. A bill was passed that no longer required non-thoroughbred parimutuel operations in the state to hold races in order to have a casino.
Of course, it is significant that the state’s two thoroughbred tracks, Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs, were not allowed to uncouple. But no clue was a threat to do so. Tampa Bay Downs does not have a casino, and the Gulfstream casino does not generate large profits. Additionally, Gulfstream remains one of the most successful tracks in the sport and is not a candidate for closure. But rest assured, racino operators outside of Florida have seen the Pompano saga unfold. Caesars Entertainment has provided a playbook when it comes to getting out of any racing obligation and it is a model that others will no doubt attempt to follow. Which state will be next?
The irony of the Pompano story is that from a mango perspective, the track has never done better. Track announcer and race director Gabe Prewitt wasn’t about to let Pompano go without a fight. Primarily through social media channels, he began a relentless promotion of the Pompano racing product. He created the #sendItInArmy, imploring harness fans to put their money on Pompano. According Harness Racing UpdateFrom the track’s inception in 1964 through 2014, there were only three instances in which Pompano had a race card handling more than $1 million. In 2021, the handle exceeded $1 million 21 times and a record $1.7 million was wagered on the 2021 closing night card.
Pompano pulled out all the stops on Sunday, finishing with a 19-race card and guaranteed funds on his Pick-4 bets. Hennessey was listed to drive in 14 races. Amazingly, at 65, he is the leading driver on the track, entering the night with 100 wins on the season.
Sunday was the last night of harness racing at Pompano Park, but the casino is still going. It’s going nowhere and, in time, harness racing will be forgotten on a track that was once one of the sport’s jewels.
What a pity.
Prat starts fast at Keeneland
In a March 6 column, I questioned why Flavien Prat would want to leave Southern California, where he was the dominant horseman in the colony. The idea was that the competition was so tough in New York and at Keeneland that Prat would drop to fourth or fifth in the standings at his new tracks behind stars like the Ortiz brothers, Luis Saez and Joel Rosario.
Seven days after the Keeneland meeting, I can see where I was wrong. Prat will never dominate the standings in Kentucky and New York like he did in California, but he has made it clear that he is not going to take a backseat to anyone. With nine winners of 37 mounts (24%) in Keeneland’s meet, he is one behind meet leader Tyler Gaffalione and tied with Irad Ortiz, Jr. for second place. He has three graded stakes wins in the competition, including the GI Madison S. and GI Toyota Blue Grass S. aboard GI Kentucky Derby top contender Zandon (Upstart).
He has won three races for Brad Cox, two for Chad Brown and one for Todd Pletcher. One of the keys to whether or not Prat thrives in New York will be how often Brown gives him mounts. Brown has started 29 horses at Keeneland and Prat has ridden nine.
There are more race dates in New York than in California and the purses are considerably higher. Those are some of the reasons why he decided to come east. He also believes that he will put him in a better position to win an Eclipse award. He took a big risk leaving his comfort zone in California, but, so far, he seems like a good move.
A great day in Keeneland
According to Equibase, betting on US races was up 1.09% for the year and down 2.37% in March. It looks like it’s going to be a relatively flat year for management, which is a bit of a disappointing news after management rose 11.9% and topped $12 billion for the first time since 2009.
However, the top tracks are still churning out big numbers. On Saturday, Keeneland set new driving records on Pick 4 and Pick 5. Pick 4 handled $1,357,298 and $1,539,098 was wagered on Pick 5. The previous marks were set on days when Blue Grass topped the card. And wagers from all sources on the 11-race card totaled $27,304,001, the second-highest single-day amount in Keeneland history. The single-day drive record of $28,137,728 was set during Blue Grass Day last Saturday.
Yes, Keeneland is supposed to put up those kinds of numbers on a Blue Grass Day, but not on any other day of the competition. He just goes to show that when he combines good racing, great courses, innovative bets like All Turf Pick 3, and reasonable takeaways, customers will respond.