By Bill Finley
Covering the first ever night of racing at Pompano Park, which took place Feb. 4, 1964, Earl Straight of the Fort Lauderdale News had this to say: “Harness racing has arrived in Broward County and it is going to be with us for a long, long time.”
He wasn't stepping out on a limb. With almost no competition for the gambling dollar, all forms of horse racing were thriving back then and there was no reason to believe that Pompano would be an exception. It was supposed to be to harness racing what Gulfstream and Hialeah were to Thoroughbred racing, the wintertime capital of the sport. And, for a time, it was. A record was set in 1980 when a crowd of 18,451 packed the stands as Pompano pushed its way past dog racing and jai alai to become the favorite nighttime outlet for South Florida gamblers craving action.
Straight didn't exactly get it wrong. Pompano lasted for 58 years, but it's highly unlikely that back in 1964 he could have envisioned how harness racing in Florida would limp to the finish line in 2022. At a place like Pompano, racing hasn't mattered for years. It became all about the casino and when a bill was passed in May of 2021 that decoupled casino gaming and pari-mutuel betting at Pompano, the track's fate was sealed. Shortly thereafter, the owner, Caesars Entertainment, announced that racing would cease at the end of the 2022 meet. The last night of racing was Sunday.
“I wouldn't call it depression to talk about the ending of racing at Pompano, it's more like a funeral,” harness legend and Hall of Famer Wally Hennessey, who has stabled at Pompano every year since 1986, told harnesslink.com. “That's the way 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 racetrack running any breed. The threat of decoupling is real and it's not going to go away. It is a huge and ominous threat.
Most every casino company that owns a racetrack doesn'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 racing in order to maintain their 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 racing at Calder/Gulfstream Park West with a jai alai operation and still keep their casino. The other casino companies in the state kept lobbying for decoupling and last spring they won the battle and the war. A bill was passed that no longer required non-Thoroughbred pari-mutuel operations in the state to conduct racing in order to have a casino.
It is, of course, significant that the state's two Thoroughbred tracks, Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs, were not permitted to decouple. But neither track was a threat to do so. Tampa Bay Downs doesn't have a casino and Gulfstream's casino is not a big moneymaker. Plus, Gulfstream remains one of the most successful tracks in the sport and not at all a candidate to close down. But you can be certain that racino operators outside of Florida have watched the Pompano saga unfold. Caesars Entertainment has provided a how-to book when it comes to getting out of any obligation to hold racing and it's a blueprint others will no doubt try to follow. What state will be next?
The irony of the Pompano story is that from a handle perspective, the track has never done better. Track announcer and director of racing Gabe Prewitt wasn't going to let Pompano go away without a fight. Mainly through social medai channels, he began a relentless promotion of the racing product at Pompano. He created the #sendItInArmy, imploring harness fans to bet on Pompano. According to Harness Racing Update, from the track's inception in 1964 through 2014, there were just three instances of Pompano having a race card handle over $1 million. In 2021, handle exceeded $1 million 21 times and a record $1.7 million was bet on the closing-night card in 2021.
Pompano pulled out all stops Sunday, ending with a 19-race card and guaranteed pools on its Pick-4 bets. Hennessey was listed to drive in 14 races. At 65, remarkably, he is the leading driver at the track, entering the night with 100 wins on the season.
Sunday was the last ever night of harness racing at Pompano Park, but the casino forges ahead. It's not going anywhere and, in time, harness racing will be forgotten at a track that was once among the jewels of the sport.
What a shame.
Prat Off To Fast Start at Keeneland
In a Mar. 6 column, I questioned why Flavien Prat would want to leave Southern California, where he was the dominant rider in the colony. The thinking was that the competition was so stiff in New York and at Keeneland that Prat would descend to fourth or fifth in the standings at his new tracks behind stars like the Ortiz brothers, Luis Saez and Joel Rosario.
Seven days into the Keeneland meet, I can see that I got this one wrong. Prat will never dominate the standings in Kentucky and in New York like he did in California, but he's made it clear that he's not going to take a backseat to anyone. With nine winners from 37 mounts (24%) at the Keeneland meet, he is one behind meet leader Tyler Gaffalione and tied with Irad Ortiz, Jr. for second. He has three graded stakes wins at the meet, including the GI Madison S. and the GI Toyota Blue Grass S. aboard top GI Kentucky Derby contender Zandon (Upstart).
He's won three races for Brad Cox, two for Chad Brown and one for Todd Pletcher. One of the keys to whether or not Prat flourishes in New York will be how often he is given mounts by Brown. Brown has started 29 horses at Keeneland and nine have been ridden by Prat.
There are more race dates in New York than there are in California and the purses are considerably higher. Those are among the reasons he decided to come east. He also believes it will put him in a better position to win an Eclipse Award. He took a big chance leaving his comfort zone in California, but, so far, it looks like a good move.
A Huge Day at Keeneland
According to Equibase, wagering on U.S. races has increased by 1.09% on the year and dropped by 2.37% in March. It looks like it's going to be a year where handle is relatively stable, which is a bit of discouraging news after handle increased by 11.9% and topped $12 billion for the first time since 2009.
Yet, the premier tracks keep churning out big numbers. On Saturday, Keeneland set new records for handle in the Pick 4 and Pick 5. The Pick 4 handled $1,357,298 and $1,539,098 was bet on the Pick 5. The previous marks were set on days when the Blue Grass topped the card. And all-sources wagering for the 11-race card totaled $27,304,001, the second-highest single-day handle in Keeneland history. The record single-day handle of $28,137,728 was set during last Saturday's Blue Grass Day.
Yes, Keeneland is supposed to do those kinds of numbers on a Blue Grass Day, but not on any other day of the meet. It just goes to show you that when you combine good racing, big fields, innovative bets like the All Turf Pick 3 and reasonable takeouts the customers will respond.