Pompano Beach Harness Racing: A Select Group of Drivers Carries on With an Endangered Sport

From the musty sound booth atop the Pompano Park grandstand, announcer Frank Salive has a rare vantage point on a fleeting sight. Seventy feet below him, ten men clad in Crayola-colored silk jerseys and helmets brandish whips — each man piloting a small horse-drawn cart around the chalky dirt track. From here, the action is a cloudy, anachronistic ballet. The drivers compete in the same kind of races Roman gladiators once held in the Coliseum: Think Ben Hur, but instead of razor-covered chariots, they drive $6,000 single-seat carbon-fiber carts called "sulkies." As they zip around the track, pulled by beasts trotting at 40 miles per hour, the carts teeter ever so close to one another — always one small slip from unspeakable catastrophe.

Before the race begins, a purple Hummer with gates spreading out like wings on each side begins rolling slowly around the track. Each horse lines up behind the moving gate in the order of the numbered blankets on its backside. The horses near a pillar that signifies the starting point in the middle of the backstretch, and Salive, whose voice normally sounds like a friendly weathercaster's, adopts a buttermilk tenor to announce: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the second race of the 2011 Isle of Capri Driver's Championship. It's post time." His smooth cadence picks up just slightly. "They're nearing the start... And they're off — " The gates fold up, the Hummer pulls away, and the sound of clopping hooves stretches across the damp night air. Through binoculars, Salive sees three horses emerge from the pack.

Salive has been in the horseracing business for 35 years. He's called more than 100,000 races over the years, but the highlight of his career was announcing the 1976 Montreal Olympics for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Now he spends most of his nights up here, often alone — just him and the microphone — for hours, watching the gladiators from on high.

When the harness track opened, it drew A-list celebrities like Jackie Gleason.
Photo Courtesy of Pompano Park Harness Track Archives
When the harness track opened, it drew A-list celebrities like Jackie Gleason.
Mickey Mantle pictured at the track.
Photo Courtesy of Pompano Park Harness Track Archives
Mickey Mantle pictured at the track.

A driver (in harness racing, they are "drivers," not "jockeys") named George Napolitano Jr., behind a horse named Single Best, takes the lead on the inside as they pull out of the second turn. "Single Best, out in front early," Salive says into the mic, "followed by the Riley Factor and Albion on the outside." Just behind Napolitano is Joe Pavia Jr., one of the winningest drivers in the sport, steering the Riley Factor. Pushing beside him is Albion, driven by wily veteran Wally Hennessey, a living legend among local horsemen. And somewhere way back there in the pack is Napolitano's youngest brother, Anthony, struggling to make up ground on the leaders.

As a whole, these men are some of the finest professional harness-track drivers in the world — not that you'd know it by the lackluster response from the 200 or so mostly white-haired folks comprising the gallery of gamblers. Napolitano, known around the track as "George Nap Jr.," is considered a slight favorite; last year, he won more harness-track races than any driver has ever won in a single year. Pavia and Hennessey are popular choices too, since both men have won hundreds of races every year for decades at this track.

Napolitano takes the turns a hair away from the white cones denoting the inside boundary. Pavia comes wide, his horse thundering, snorting like a hellhound all the way. As they hit the final stretch, the whips start to snap a rhythmic beat that echoes off of every surface.

When he passes the grandstands, Napolitano is leaning forward, cracking his leather, yelling a series of deep, gruff commands to his horse. Covered in caked-on mud splatters, he grips the reins with all his strength, and he barely holds off Pavia as they cross the finish line for the victory.

During its heyday, from the 1960s through the 1990s, this track was known as the "Winter Capital of Harness Racing," and as many as 15,000 spectators jammed the place on any given night, including A-list celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, and Jackie Gleason. What's illuminated beneath the dust and the yellow stadium lights these days are the death throes of a sport that, only 15 years ago, thrived in South Florida.

The game long ago seduced Napolitano. The men in his family have worked with horses for generations. With a helmet and uniform the colors of the Italian flag, he stands about five-foot-eight (average for a harness-track driver), 180 pounds, sturdy, with short brown hair, a diamond stud in each ear, and the cantalouped forearms of a 44-year-old who since 1990 has made his daily wage driving powerful beasts around an oval track.

As the law in Florida has stood for 15 years, the only non-Seminole casinos in Florida allowed to operate the lucrative slot machines and poker tables are pari-mutuels that also race horses, run greyhounds, or have live jai-alai performances. But every year, the state Legislature considers new bills that would relieve tracks of the legal obligation to race animals. The proposed laws could free up track owners to focus on casino profits and shutter their pari-mutuel operations for good. The harness-racing community fears it could be next on the chopping block.

Meanwhile, men like George Napolitano Jr. persevere, out under those hazy lights four nights a week, risking their lives — and the lives of their horses — for a moribund industry from a bygone era.


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20 comments
Guest
Guest

The track must have paid for this article. They are clearly business partners. Look at the Beerfest ads all over the page. The New Times Beerfest just happens to be held at Pompano Park.

Frank Fan
Frank Fan

Frank Salive is the greatest thing about this track. Anybody who's ever actually met him knows he is one of the nicest guys ever.

horse143
horse143

wow i really want to learn about this horse racing thing more. :) thanks for posting this article.

Alzeke44
Alzeke44

i worked there  4 decades and they discarded me like old newspaper

John
John

This was a great article, if you know harness racing.  One exception;  Frank Saliva,  the present announcer, as far as accuracy and continuity of his race calls, wouldn't make a pimple on Joe Ricci's ass (the previous announcer).  Since the announcer switch, I haven't played a race at Pompano Park.  It is essential to me to have impeccable race calls. Any track with a half-ass announcer loses my business.

CMG? Really?
CMG? Really?

CMG? There is no page 7 of this article. Harness racing is dying. It loses money and everyone associated knows the end is close. That real estate is very valuable and the only reason they continue a sport that loses millions every year is because they have to in order to keep the slots and poker. Been to the track lately? That could be a hotel that would enrich the entire community without abusing animals for pleasure. Any time an industry is dying, they always talk about the guys who drive the trucks and sell the equipment. Well whatever they put in that space will have drivers and need equipment. Don't you believe we should live in a country where you are free to choose what business you run without the government deciding what archaic sport you have to lose money on?

CMG
CMG

If you want to fact check articles about harness racing, go to www.ustrotting.com where you can find out all information about harness racing driver wins/dollars won/horse earnings, etc. They have all statistical information and show the world and track records and provide up-to-date articles in their news area. Also, there were no bills in Tallahassee this year trying to remove harness racing requirements, or any horse racing requirements, from casinos as stated on page 7 of this article. There was a greyhound and jai alai bill, but nothing dealing with horse racing of any type. You can check out the website for the Florida House and Senate for that. Not sure who edits this stuff, but maybe try a Google search next time. Harness racing continues to have a multi-million dollar economic impact in the state of Florida with drivers, trainers, owners, breeders, training centers, feed stores, veterinarians, tack and supply stores, tractor/equipment retailers and service companies contributing to Florida's economy everyday. There's a lot more to the entire industry than you can see from spending a few hours in a race paddock.      

Walter
Walter

Michael, these horses do not gallop or go 40mph. Harness horses must either trot or pace during the mile. They also peak at about 35mph. Harness racing is a great and true American sport, with a majority of owners, trainers and drivers being born in th USA.  

Awargunisbliss
Awargunisbliss

 not sure who edited this article but you twice mention napolitano as the winningest driver in year with "Napolitano finished the year with 754 victories in about 8,000 races, besting the all-time single-season record by 20 wins, ensuring his place among the great drivers throughout history." The most wins by a driver in a year is Tim Tetrick with 1,189. It happened in 2007...http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Tetr...

Mitch863
Mitch863

the same with Jai alai, dog track and condo's. I watched Roosevelt Raceway fall to super crooked government and a drop from 40 thousand on a Saturday night to a few hundred. Bye Bye memories 

Dave Rand
Dave Rand

"Are you aware that harness racing is one of the largest spectator sports in the world?" Yeah, not in Florida, buddy. Track has 5 more years, tops. You should be happy any reporters in the US even care about this sport anymore.

Ddm
Ddm

Gladiators?  Chariots?  Are you aware that harness racing is one of the largest spectator sports in the world?  If you wrote an uninformed piece of garbage like this in France or Italy you would get 15 minutes of fame as an idiot!   If you were trying to make your writing stylized or intentionally esoteric, you missed the mark.  This was just so poor -- I finished reading it for the sheer amusement. 

Guest
Guest

I love George Nap Jr! Great story!

Guest
Guest

Wow.  Mr. Mooney, you just about did it all here!  You wrote factual inaccuracies, outright false statements, and loads of mis-information.  Did you, Ms. Funcheon, or anyone else at your newspaper bother to fact check??  Sheeze...what a paper you have there.  But it is typical of the way your paper routinely treats its readers.

Guest
Guest

Extended metaphor for journalism and newspapers there, Mooney?

Mark F.
Mark F.

I've been a fan of harness for 25 years and watched as the sport has crumbled and tracks have closed. I want to thank the author for a beautiful portrait of this last generation of great horsemen. There is something noble and dignified about strapping on the helmet and doing your job the right way night after night.

bajno1
bajno1

Something the reporter doesn't realize is that while there are only 200 people at the track, there are hundreds if not thousands of people playing Pompano's races via computer or simulcast locations.  The sport is more popular than the reporter paints.  That being said, the sport does need to make changes to stay relevant. 

Howie
Howie

 The horses don't gallop at 40 mph. Galloping is not permitted in harness racing. They either trot or pace.

Deirdra Funcheon
Deirdra Funcheon

 Oops. Funny, the writer originally had "trot" in there but I thought "trotting" sounded slow for 40 mph so I changed it to "gallop." Oops! Didn't realize they were technically different terms.  Thanks for clarifying.  -- Editor

Howie
Howie

Yeah, "funny" because putting factually incorrect statements into a story is hilarious especially when you're writing about people's livlihoods. Three pages later the story explains the difference between sprinting and trotting, but I guess the editors there don't read much either.

 
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