Last Call For Pompano Park

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

It’s all over. After decades of being a winter haven for harness racing, Pompano Park will race for the last time tomorrow evening. In Florida, horse racing has been decoupled from casinos and because of that and the enormous value of real estate, harness racing has reached the finish line in Broward County. Why continue to subsidize harness racing when you don’t have to and can expand the casino and make more money?

I remember when Hollywood Park raced for the last time in 2013. Vic Stauffer’s final race call was spine-tingling and it will be interesting to hear what the Voice of Pompano, Gabe Prewitt has in store. It certainly won’t be easy for Prewitt. He has worked tirelessly the past few years at the track, creating the #SenditinArmy and increasing track handle significantly. Like us, he loves harness racing and brings energy, excitement and passion each and every night.

We live in a world of supply and demand and right now, the demand for harness racing is stagnant at best. The owners of Pompano Park know they can make more money by demolishing the track and expanding the casino and while that’s sad, economically, it’s understandable.

I understand and don’t understand the gambling business. We know that it preys on the elderly, the uneducated, the financially challenged. There is no doubt that most of the people in a gambling hall probably shouldn’t be in there. “Rich people” also go there, dressing up for an evening of fun and hijinks, but go to a casino on a Tuesday at 1 pm and tell me who’s there.

Harness racing is gambling, so it can attract the same clientele as the casino does, but betting on harness racing usually requires some thought. Certainly not a ton, but much more than pushing a slot button or holding on 14. There is a little investigative prowess that goes into harness race wagering, but then again, I guess you could just look at the field of eight, put $20 on number four and see what happens.

Harness racing is also an athletic competition, and the stars of course are the beautiful equines. Trust me, the horses know what they’re doing out there and contrary to what the anti-racing people say, most enjoy both training and racing. Like any athlete, when you train each day, you want to compete and means winning.

There was some optimism that a group would form and apply for a racing license in Florida, but that time has come and gone and after Sunday, that will be that. It is a shame because come next winter, there will be no warm weather winter racing on the East coast of the United States. Perhaps Cal Expo will pick up the Pompano customers and maybe the track will reach out to Prewitt to see if he can bring the #SenditArmy to Sacramento.

Harness racing is not going away. There are still plenty of tracks left—maybe even too many—so reports of the sport’s demise may be exaggerated. Oak Grove in Kentucky is relatively new to harness racing and recently added a 30-day spring-summer meet to go with its 16-day fall meet.

That said, the one thing that sport is worried about is future decoupling. What would happen in Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania if legislators decided that casinos no longer have to subsidize harness racing?

Yonkers would most likely level the track and expand the casino to include more games (maybe even poker and live blackjack) and perhaps a small arena for concerts and comedians. In New York, casinos saved harness racing. When the law went into effect, racinos had to be built on the grounds of a horse or harness racing track; or they had to support racing to get a gaming license (see Monticello). In New York, changing an existing law is hard, but certainly not impossible.

Florida decoupled and now, harness racing goes away. In Ontario (Canada), decoupling also occurred, but for now tracks like Woodbine Mohawk Park and smaller ones like Flamboro Downs are still racing. New Jersey has also survived without a casino, but the Garden State benefitted from a $20 million annual state subsidy and all three tracks have sports books which has generated billions in revenue since opening a few years ago.

The one thing we do know is that people love to gamble and it’s the way you can bet that is at times, maddening. In a basketball game, the score could Houston 95, Portland 91 with six minutes left and you can still get odds to make an in-game bet. I’ll argue that harness racing needs to get creative and higher a company that would allow bettors to bet on fractional times, who will lead at the quarter, the half and three-quarters—in race betting!

Offering more options is the way to lure new bettors into your sport. And these new bettors are not necessarily interested in the sport. They’re interested in the adrenaline that wagering gives them, the chance to make some extra money and as long as the options are viable, they’ll invest. If you can bet on how long it will take to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, then betting for a 27.3 opening quarter at Hoosier Park should be both available and easy to do.

The Pomp will put on its Sunday best for one final curtain call. I don’t think it will be as sad as some think; as they say, all good things must end. You and I won’t live forever, why should Pompano Park? We used to use typewriters, but no more.

Americans are nostalgic. For years, on track attendance at Pompano has been sparse, but you know the crowd will be big come Sunday. Some will say “Where were these people a few years ago when talk of ending racing was taking place.” That’s not how Americans operate. When the Soft Ice Cream place opens up for the first time each spring, the lines are usually long. The next day, no line at all. When we’re done, we’re done and for most Americans, spending a Saturday evening at the harness track no longer fits into their routines.

There are 16 races scheduled and each race has at least 10 starters, with 11 entered in the finale. The card starts at 7 PM ET and race 16 is slated for midnight which we know won’t happen. The track is going out big and will take it’s time with a card that could stretch to six hours. I’m sure the crowd will be big at the beginning, maybe bigger from 8 to 10 pm and by the end, sparse like it is at most tracks most days.

That’s probably the way it should be as it will give us the full gamut of 58 years of Pompano racing. In the beginning, the crowds were robust. Then, they began to dwindle once off track betting and other diversions took over, and now, you have a better chance of seeing pigeons over people at the tracks. In that way, the end could be a fitting one.

It will be a night filled with emotion. Some will be there for the first time ever, wanting to see history. Others will venture out for the 1,000th time. Some will make tons of bets, others none. Some will know what they’re doing, others not a clue. And, that’s the way it should be because this is America.

We’ll miss Pompano Park, but we’ll also be grateful for all the years she gave us. 

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