What used to be the main level of the grandstand — with enough seats for 3,000 people — now sits quiet and empty year-round, separated from the public by slats of plywood. As he walks through the dusty darkness, the clicking of Yinger's steps echoes across the expanse of the room. Where there were once plush seats and private boxes, there are now uncovered wires and a stray extension cord.

"It feels almost like being on a ghost ship," he says. "Or like the Titanic." The entire place feels like a sepulcher for a world that no longer exists. Same with the luxurious owner's club and the old track watering hole, a bar called Patten's Place. The signs are still up, but now the track uses those spaces for staff meetings. The old posters and racing memorabilia have been moved downstairs or into storage. A few jerseys that used to hang over the bar are now on the wall behind Yinger's desk. One is the old, colorful silk once worn by the great Bill Haughton, a legendary driver Yinger calls "the Dale Earnhardt of harness racing." After winning all of the sport's biggest titles numerous times, Haughton was killed in a racing accident at the Yonkers, New York, track in 1986.

Like the legends, the sport itself is dying. There was a time when Pompano Park pulled in a million dollars a week, Yinger says. Last year, the track lost millions. (It was even more the year before, but executives decided to close a few concession stands and to stop air-conditioning the upper floors of the grandstand.) The lost revenue is still well worth the investment for the track, though. Because it offers racing 144 days a year, the Isle of Capri is legally allowed to maintain its sea of slot machines and a poker room that has 200 or so people playing for hundreds of dollars a hand at any given time.

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.

The current laws came about nearly 15 years ago, the result of a Faustian deal that pari-mutuel operators hoped would help prop up their struggling business. Now track owners, tired of losing money on racing, are teaming up and lobbying to remove the racing requirement for casinos, potentially leaving the fate of each track to the Miltonian market of dedicated gamblers.

Yinger points out that though there is certainly some woe among lifelong horse workers, there is still much to love about the old track: The nights are pleasant, and the thrills are cheap. Children still stare in awe at the magnificent beasts as they pass by. There's even an adorable fox living somewhere behind the scoreboard. Plus, Yinger says, there's Frank Salive, the play-by-play man.

"Frank is a treasure," the racing director says. "He's without a doubt one of the top two horse announcers in North America."

Over the past 15 years, the "handle," or overall amount wagered, has shriveled, but ironically, with fewer tracks in operation, the driving talent is now concentrated, and the horses are faster than ever. "It's great racing," Yinger says. "Now if we could only get people to pay attention."

To that end, in November, the track hired Gigi Diaz, a buxom 24-year-old sweetheart, as the trackside reporter. With her hair and makeup perfect, she records short segments every week about various drivers for the track simulcast.

"I didn't know anything about harness racing before I got hired here," she says. "But everyone at the track is so nice and so genuine. These people are different. There's a whole fascinating world here I had no clue existed."


Napolitano's wages haven't been bad, by working-stiff standards. He doesn't like to give out exact figures — "I just give all the money to my wife, and she handles it," he says — but it's enough to afford him a sweet two-story house in a well-manicured neighborhood in Boca. Drivers usually make 5 percent of a horse's winnings. So in a race with a $10,000 purse, the winning horse's driver could make $250. On a good night in Pompano, a driver can make a quick grand. Up North, though, Napolitano can make two or three times that. In New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, there's more of a market for old-fashioned entertainment, and harness tracks are one of the few places people there are allowed to gamble.

What Napolitano really likes, though, is when the gladiatorial ballet transcends the paycheck and its neon-lit venue, when he gets the chance to drive one of those truly rare breeds — the kind of horse a guy can go a lifetime and never get to drive. That's what he had with a pacer named Delivered From Zin, one of the fastest horses in recent harness history. Napolitano has earned more than $100,000 behind that horse alone. The difference between most horses and an animal like Delivered From Zin?

"Like the difference between driving a Ferrari and some random car off the street," he says. "You can feel it immediately, before the first turn. It makes you grateful just to be a part of something that amazing."

Before he can say much more, it's time to race again. This time, he's scheduled to drive a tall, broad trotter, bigger than he usually likes. The horse, with one of Napolitano's custom-made sulkies already harnessed, slows down enough for the driver to take his seat. Just like that, they're off to circle the track for a warm-up lap before lining up behind the starting car.

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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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