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.
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.
Cross the expansive, Disneylandian parking lot on a Monday night in March, and cut through the posh new casino, with its glowing bar, flashing slot machines, and cacophony of clicking poker chips. Step out back, over the rail, across a corner of the chalky track, and into the stuffy white barn on the east end. There's Napolitano, standing under a television with his helmet off, pulling the last smoke he can get from a withering cigarette. A small puddle of mud on the barn floor collects his ashes as they fall. Outside, a fine mist pours down on the track, quickly turning the dirt into a slick white sludge.
"It's one of those fucking nights," Napolitano says with dark congeniality. "It's fast and furious, and you just know any-fucking-thing could happen. Nights like this, you just fucking pray to God you do everything right."
Pardon the language, but Napolitano just finished his fourth race of the night, and the evening isn't going well. So far, he has one third-place finish that'll earn him about 35 bucks. After a five-minute break — enough time for a smoke and a visit to the bathroom — he'll race again, and again after that, and again after that. Often he'll drive in eight or nine races a night, with nothing but a cigarette between them.
As soon as he's done with the last of his smoke, he picks up the whip leaning against the wall and waits for his next horse. For harness-track drivers, control comes with a four-foot leather crop. He checks the program tacked to a corkboard by the bathroom to see which horse he's riding next.
"Ah fuck," he says. "This horse... " he pauses, looking for the right words. The odds of Napolitano's winning behind this horse are 30-to-1. "I'm riding this guy as a favor to the trainer. Friend of mine. Good guy. And you never know on a night like this."
The barn itself is part locker room, part frat house, and part marketplace, with each driver vying for the best horse and each trainer vying for the best driver. Napolitano, known for his aggressive racing style and his utter lack of fear, is one of the most sought-after drivers in the country. About half of his life is spent on the road, bouncing among the handful of still-open tracks, chasing the harness-racing circuit from Pennsylvania to New York to California and back. Sometimes he drives hundreds of miles between tracks, racing 20 times in a day, only to turn right back around at the end of the night. Every winter is spent racing at Pompano and living in Boca Raton with his wife, Kathleen, and their 6-year-old son, also named George.
Napolitano grew up in the horse business. His grandfather — the man for whom he is named — was a trainer in Long Island. So was his father. Napolitano was one of six kids in a family that never had a lot of money, but racing always provided life's essentials. When Napolitano was 15, though, his father swore he was going to get out of the horse game until his sons could drive.
"He was tired of dealing with the flaky drivers," Napolitano remembers. "Alcoholics, gambling degenerates, he was sick of 'em all. He said he wanted to have his own drivers."
As a kid, Napolitano was into anything that came with an adrenaline rush. He rode dirt bikes. He raced cars. He boxed on the Golden Gloves circuit for a few years. But he felt like those were all young men's games. He knew he wanted to do something he loved but could also parlay into a long-term career. Something that could provide for a family.
He got a job cleaning stalls when he was 17, literally shoveling shit for ten hours a day. He worked his way up in the barn. He volunteered to drive the horses on practice runs, then in qualifying races. At 22, he got his chance in a live race, right here in Pompano. When the gate went up, the pack left him sputtering in the dust — he finished dead last — but there was still something incredible about the experience. Zipping around the track, the whoosh of the wind in his face, the organized chaos of speeding horses and cracking whips, the magical glow of the lights overhead: There was no question this was for him.
Within a few years, his youngest brother, Anthony, decided to follow in his footsteps. He raced at the same tracks. He wore an identical jersey and helmet. He even bought a house in South Florida, just like big brother.
"You see success and you try to copy it," Anthony says. "The fact that he was my brother just made it easier."
The two are more than ten years apart in age, so George says there's not much rivalry to the relationship. "There's nothing bigger than family," he says.
Both brothers had natural talent, but it was George who quickly became one of the most dominant drivers at the track. The years he had spent sitting next to his grandfather as a boy, absorbing the world of horses, gave him impeccable intuition. As soon as he sees a horse run, Napolitano can tell if the animal is sick, if an ankle seems swollen, or if the gait seems slightly off. He also became one of the most penalized drivers in the game. He has received dozens of disciplinary warnings for everything from misusing his whip to testing positive for non-performance-enhancing drugs (drivers are subject to drug testing at any time). "Being away from your family, out on the road, that's a hard life," he says. He was reprimanded, fined, and on more than one occasion even suspended, but nothing kept him away for long.
A few years ago, he says, he found God, and it gave him a new focus. The discipline issues went away. His win totals went up. He remembers a friend telling him that, if he really wanted to see God's presence in his life, he should challenge the deity, ask for something that seems impossible.
Some men pray for love. Some for money. Napolitano prayed one night and asked for wins. He asked God to make him the best driver at the track in Pennsylvania where he was racing at the time. Then he asked God to help him win at other tracks too.
"I basically said, 'God, if you're really out there, I want you to help me win the overall racing title.' " He wanted the record for most wins in a year.
He started winning more. Much more. When the weekly win totals came out, Napolitano had 21, 23, 27, 25 in a week. Most drivers averaged fewer than ten.
"You know how they say hot hands get dealt good cards?" says Joe Pavia Jr., a veteran driver who's watched Napolitano's career flourish over the past few years. "That's what was happening. Once he got on a roll, he started getting all the best horses too." Pavia adds: "He also stayed healthy. That's one of the biggest things."
Pavia knows all too well the dangers of harness-track driving. Four years ago, Pavia was in a horrific accident at the Meadowlands track, near Newark. The horse in front of his went down in a thunderous spill. He tried to pull his horse away from the bedlam, but it was too late. He felt himself ejected from the cart, soaring through the warm New Jersey air and — nothing. The next thing he remembers is waking up in the hospital. His face was swollen, his arm broken, his organs jumbled and bruised. But a few weeks later — much to the dismay of his family — Pavia was back on the sulky, ready to race again.
Telling the story, Pavia shakes his head and smiles. "I'm a driver," he says. "This is what I do."
Napolitano knows he's been lucky. As the 2010 season progressed, his numbers kept going up, and he kept pushing. He compares his lucky streak to the home-run races of the late 1990s, sans the illicit chemical aids. "I felt like Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds or something," he says.
Since about half the people involved with racing at Pompano are originally from Canada, they compare Napolitano to a different sports legend. "He's just like Wayne Gretzky," says John Hallett, a trainer who's been involved with racing for 37 years. "He's not really bigger or stronger, but the way he works a horse... he just has that extra something special."
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.
"A run like that is fucking crazy," he says. "That's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. I just had to go for it."
At the moment, though, he's about to pilot his buddy's horse, the longest shot in the field. He finishes seventh and collects no money for the ride.
The bowels of the Pompano Park grandstands are filled with tight, winding staircases and long, rusty catwalks that go past decades of accumulated dust and handrails so worn that bald iron shows from under the paint.
"It's like the set of a Die Hard movie," says John Yinger, the track's director of racing. Anything could be lurking in these dark corners. "Some people get a little spooked."
Yinger has witnessed the most recent evolution of harness racing firsthand. To say the sport is in decline belies the short distance it has left to fall. What is considered modern harness racing began in Europe around the turn of the 19th Century. It quickly spread to North America as a popular alternative to thoroughbred racing. In an effort to bring harness racing to a warmer climate, prominent Kentucky horseman Frederick Van Lennep and his wife, Frances Dodge Van Lennep, built the Pompano track in 1963 for $5.5 million. And as soon as it opened, it was the most popular hot spot in town.
Photos from the old days show packed grandstands, with audiences decked out in tuxedos and expensive evening gowns with mink stoles. Every night, there were famous faces: Walter Matthau, Mickey Mantle, Ed Sullivan, Rodney Dangerfield. Through the years, the track hosted carnivals and fireworks and novelty races run by zebras and elephants.
"In the glory days, this was the place to be," Yinger says, more than a hint of lament in his voice. "Now, it's a dying sport." He shakes his head. "Pretty, pretty sad if you ask me."
There's been some tension between the horse people and the casino recently. For decades, the horse tracks, dog tracks, and jai-alai frontons were the only professional sports in South Florida. Then came pro football in the mid-'60s. Then in the late '80s and early '90s, the NBA expanded into downtown Miami with the Heat, and Major League Baseball expanded to north Miami-Dade County with the Marlins. The Seminoles opened a massive casino a few miles away in Coconut Creek in 2000 and, a few years later, a larger one in Hollywood.
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.
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.
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."
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.
"Plenty of bad drivers win on good horses," Napolitano says. "But a bad driver can cost you a race too. I've seen it happen."
It's the middle of March — the lead-out pony is spray-painted with a green shamrock — and the men are assembling for what will be, for many of them, the last night of racing in Pompano for the season. The tracks up North will be opening soon. Tonight is also the final set of races in a three-day, ten-racetrack promotion billed as the "Driver's Championship." The top ten drivers have been randomly assigned to horses and post positions, and they accumulate points over the ten races. At the end, the winning driver will receive a bonus of $8,000 — enough to pique the competitive spirit in even the most jaded among them. Going into the final race, the name atop the standings is Napolitano, but it's not George Jr.
Little brother Anthony is close to the win, but he's slotted to drive a long shot. Several drivers — including the big brother — are close behind.
Wally Hennessey, the hilariously crotchety veteran in second place, jokes that he has the most pressing need for the money, so he should win. "You know I got a fuckin' kid in college, right?" barbs Hennessey, who's been racing here since before most of the young men over in the poker room were even born. "What the fuck would these sons of bitches do with it anyway?"
If the guys seem a little more laid-back today, it may be because the Isle of Capri has just signed a contract with the horsemen promising to continue racing for at least three more years, regardless of what the state Legislature eventually decides. "Tensions are way down," says Yinger. Three years isn't optimal, but it's enough to stop worrying for the moment. In a world where most things haven't changed in decades, nothing seems so certain now.
George Napolitano Jr. hopes that the sport will last at least ten more years. By then, he figures, he can retire if he has to. Napolitano never regrets his chosen career. It's been tough at times, but racing has afforded him a good life. If, by some divine intervention, the sport still exists a generation from now, would he ever want his son driving? "Hell no," he says, though after a moment of thought, he clarifies that he'd be supportive no matter what. "But I really want him to go to college."
In the last race, George Napolitano is never in contention. Anthony, however, drives the 9-to-1 long shot to victory. In the winner's circle, he tells Frank Salive that he'll use the money to redo his kitchen.
"He knows I have a fucking kid in college, right?" Hennessey gripes again.
"He's a cheap bastard too," George Napolitano jokes about his little brother. When Anthony gets back to the barn, though, big brother privately congratulates him.
Then it's immediately back to the grind. There is another race before the night is over. Each brother slides into a sulky, takes the reins, and pulls away into a cloud of dust.
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