Longform

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.

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Michael J. Mooney