From inside the purple Hummer carrying the starting gate, the race feels like a frenzied, thundering avalanche of animal flesh. Before the gate goes up, each horse's eyes are focused, fixed dead ahead. After the start, the judge inside the starting car calls out the horses that break their stride. In harness racing, the horses must never sprint. Depending on the type of race, the horses have to either pace (when the back leg and front leg on the same side move together) or trot (when the front and back legs move in diagonal pairs), and a misstep means disqualification. The horses circle for a mile — one and a half times around the track — usually in a little less than two minutes.

Coming out of the last turn, Napolitano, still driving his oversized chocolate steed, is fifth and closing. He goes outside, zipping past his own brother and Bruce Ranger to finish second. Ranger, a member of the harness-racing hall of fame with nearly 9,000 career wins, is something of a chaplain to the younger drivers. For years, he was a raging alcoholic, but he got clean 15 years ago. Since, he has counseled the younger drivers on the circuit.

"This is a hard life," he says with the tone of a monk. "Drinking, drugs, gambling, cheating on your wife — there's a lot of ways you can go wrong."

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.

As he approaches the barn after the race, Napolitano is smiling. He hops out of the sulky and pets the horse on the face. "The big ones aren't usually so fast," he says. "Most of them are like big fucking lobsters that can't get out of their own way."


Weeknights at the track can all run together. With the old fluorescent lights humming, crumpled pieces of paper dotting the tile floor, and strangers mulling about, the main betting parlor can feel like an out-of-the-way bus station. But for a few bucks, you can still get a beer, a hot dog, and the night's program.

Arthur, a balding man in wire-framed glasses and a Hawaiian shirt who asked that his last name not be published, has sold programs here for 21 years. He too remembers the bustling crowds and movie stars. "Now it's a lot of the same faces getting older," he says. "And there aren't a lot of young people coming in to replace them." He says he knows the track won't be around forever, but he can't bear to think of what he'll do if he's alive the day they shut this place down.

One member of the racing community that won't be around for that day is a horse named Easter Call. On a Tuesday night in early March, everyone at the track gets a traumatic reminder of another reason this ancient sport is facing extinction. A soft-brown gelding trotter from California, Easter Call is the three horse in the sixth race of the evening. He's driven by Mike Micallef. He runs hard but doesn't finish in the top three — nothing unusual. There are also no positive drug tests on record for the horse. But just a few steps past the finish line, Easter Call collapses face first into the dirt.

Track employees, quick to realize what's happening, race out to the horse with two large tarps, holding them up so spectators won't be able to see. Within a minute, the track vet is there, and quickly there's a decision to euthanize. The official cause of death is listed as cardiac arrest.

Most fans don't see the fall. Some who do don't understand what's going on. Most noses are still buried in the night's programs, decoding lines of numbers in an attempt to turn a profit in the next race. The entire ordeal is over in under ten minutes, and the next group of horses is out warming up.

Word spreads quickly down at the barn, though. The usually loud, jovial frat house is quiet.

"There's really nothing anyone can say at a time like that," says trainer John Hallett. "For a lot of people, these horses are like their family. They treat them better than they treat their kids. It's a tragedy."

John Yinger, more than a little concerned that a reporter has just watched a horse die on his track, stresses, "This type of thing is extremely rare." Track records are not public, but Yinger says this is only the second death in the past year. The last one was in October. "That's hundreds of races," he says. "Hundreds of horses this didn't happen to."

Long after the bright yellow lights over the track go out and everyone in the barn and the grandstand goes home for the night, Easter Call will still be under a tarp, in a trailer parked behind the backstretch.


Handicappers usually say that on a jockey-ridden horse, the animal is 90 percent responsible for the outcome of a race, the human only 10 percent. The consensus in harness racing is that here it's 70 percent horse, 30 percent driver. That's what Napolitano and Pavia are discussing one night in the barn.

"The best driver in the world can't turn a bad horse into a winner," Pavia says.

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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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