Cool to Trot

Pompano Park Racing

Men with cigars clenched between their teeth sit around tables with racing programs spread before them and puff pungent smoke into the air as they watch drivers in brightly colored silk shirts crack long whips against the flanks of horses. The equines pull carts called sulkies around the track, and when the mile-long contest concludes some three minutes later, a few racing junkies step up to the betting windows to collect their winnings, while others toss aside losing tickets in disgust.

Meanwhile, in a different area at Pompano Park Racing, another small crowd of race fans -- mostly older men and women -- cheer as a different pack of horses comes around the bend. The pounding of hoofs can be felt through the floor of the general-admission grandstand on the track's second level.

Lacking such immediate drama, the former race was one of dozens simulcast daily from harness-racing tracks around the country and shown at Pompano Park. The latter was part of the live racing featured four nights per week.

Built in 1964, the track was envisioned as the Taj Mahal of harness racing by developer and horseman Frederick Van Lennep. Like everything else considered "retro," the place looks hip again with its muted, primary-color tile and bright-orange plastic seats.

Gaggles of race fanatics pouring over tip sheets and lining up to place bets are also reminiscent of a '60s scene, but banks of big-screen TVs on which the simulcast contests flash are an obvious update. So is the selection of food, drink, and viewing areas at the track.

In the glass-enclosed Top of the Park Restaurant on the fifth level, patrons watch from on high and enjoy steaks and seafood on white linen at tables with individual TV monitors. Situated on the fourth level, the finely appointed Patten's Place Pub offers a plush atmosphere for race enthusiasts who linger to take in races simulcast until 1:45 a.m. from California or as far away as Paris.

Even the more pedestrian third-level grandstand features a new assortment of sandwiches at the deli and a walk-up bar with imported beers on tap.

Of course, amid all the food and televised remotes, live races take place, as well as the occasional special event. On December 3, for instance, Vincent Silvestro presents his "Hot to Trot" exhibition, rigging his sulky with explosives and standing on it as his horse bolts around the track. Promotional gimmickry to be sure, but in a sport with an aging fan base, marketers are trying something new to entice a younger crowd.

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John Ferri