Day 1 & 2
We arrived in Florida (more specifically Miami) on the evening of Monday 8th February after a day's worth of travel from Glasgow via New York. An hour drive north took us to Fort Lauderdale, where we settled for the week. Our sole point of contact in Florida was Steve Wolf, the editor I deal with when submitting my articles to Harnesslink, and Chairman of the Board for the United States Harnes Writers Association of which I am now a sponsored member (thanks to Steve!).
Steve had arranged for Smarty and I to meet Wally Hennessy, Pompano Park's leading driver, at the area of the track known as 'the back stretch' the following day, in order for us to explore the side of the venue that most racegoers don't even know exists. We were to have security page him upon our arrival; however, Wally was out on the jog track at the time so after much brain-racking, Smarty plucked Kevin Wallis' name from the atmosphere after recalling his connections with Watson Harrop, a friend of ours. We didn't see much of Kevin for the remainder of the week but if you're reading this Kevin, THANK YOU for signing us in on that first day when we didn't know our way around or who anybody was!
We started at the most logical point which was the row of stables furthest from the jog track; here we met a lady by the name of Cindy Rapson who was more than happy to chat with us whilst letting Back To Peace have a graze. It turned out that Cindy knew the O'Neils (Elizabeth, Michael & Hugh), Caroline Kennedy and George Carson, all of whom are friends of ours from Scotland, from a previous trip to Canada. She couldn't speak highly enough of them all which was great to hear, and she particularly commended George on his work ethic whilst visiting, as he was volunteering himself repeatedly for jogging duties (even in the worst of weather). This I can believe; but I'll save a profile post about George for another time as I can't sing his praises highly enough!
As luck would have it, Wally and his brother, Dan, were stabled in the bottom half of the first row. I have to say that from the moment we met them both, they could not have been more friendly, helpful or accommodating. Dan answered every question Smarty threw at him, and Wally assured us that we would get a chance to see and do everything that was worth seeing and doing at Pompano Park; all we had to do was 'leave it with him'. Wally had previously visited Ireland to drive at the Vincent Delaney Memorial Weekend in 2014, so had a better understanding than most of the people we met as to the sport in the UK and Ireland. He is a real character, that's for sure, and I tried my best to convince him to come back over this year! He spoke very highly of the hospitality he received in Ireland (although he admitted the time passed rather quickly in a blur of alcohol and partying alongside the racing), which is something I have to commend Derek & James Delaney for. When you experience the hospitality offered by the Americans when you visit them, you can begin to understand what it is they appreciate most when visiting the UK and Ireland. A little bit of hospitality goes a long way.
We watched Wally jog a couple of horses out on the half mile jog track, which quite frankly was as good as (if not better) than the best half mile race track we have in the UK.
|Wally Hennessy jogging & leading around Pompano's 1/2 mile jog track|
|Doo Wop Hanover & Scott|
|Doo Wop feeling a bit fresh!|
|Jamie Macomber in the foreground jogging a 10-year-old trotter|
From there we wandered to the end of the double block (two rows of stables facing each other) and met Scott, caretaker for trainer Peter Blood. He had been the person leading the buckaroo from the back of the golf buggy, who turned out to be Doo Wop Hanover (Rocknroll Hanover-Deer Valley Miss-Artsplace), one of the four horses under his direct care within the stables. He also introduced us to Boston Red Rocks (Rocknroll Hanover-McGibson-McArdle) and a stunning trotter by the name of Katch Kanna (Lucky Chucky-Oleodre-Lindy Lane) who went on to win 5 days later during our visit.
|Boston Red Rocks|
|Katch Kanna & Molly (I *think* that was her name!!|
That night we headed to Pompano Park track itself for our first experience of racing in Florida. The first big difference I noted was that entry was free. The racecard cost $2 and contained all the information you could possibly wish to know about the runners. Ours look decidely amateur in comparison (something I discussed with Steve later in the week).
The facilities are out of this world and yet the 'old' grandstand is no longer in use. There were barely more people there watching the racing than at Corbiewood on a Thursday night. Yet indoors, the casino was full of people playing poker, eating, drinking and playing on the slot machines. I lasted all of five minutes inside before the lights and noise got to me and I returned to my spot outside by the bar to watch the racing. No jokes please, these were some of the best seats in the house! And not because I enjoy the occasional tipple...
After the third race I spotted Chris Oakes, trainer of a number of top racehorses including Luck Be Withyou (Western Ideal-Trim Hanover-Camluck), sat behind us at the bar. With a bit of Dutch courage (not that I've ever needed that in order to speak to strangers), I approached him to talk about securing a job next winter for my friend, George (previously mentioned above). I must admit, Chris handled the situation very well considering he was being accosted by a British woman, and a stranger at that, about taking on someone he'd never met before. He told me that seeing as I was able to vouch for George's attitude, commitment and knowledge, that he should get in touch with Chris via Facebook to discuss a position at his stable next winter. I left it at that, knowing I was going to need to get George's rear end in gear to get him over to Florida for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (one day that boy will realise all that Smarty and I do for him to make sure he gets where he's meant to go in life).
Our delightful host Wally left it until the last race to notch up a winner, at which point Dan Hennessy escorted me to the winner's circle to get in the photo. Again, no jokes please, I didn't actively photobomb this time. Had I tried to get out of it I suspect Dan, and his friends from Canada who were visiting to play golf in the sun, would have carried me there. For their sakes, I went willingly.
It was at this point that I met Skip [Smith], official photographer at Pompano Park and someone who received numerous requests for photos from me during the remainder of the week as I ended up in several other winning photos.
On the Wednesday we headed to South Florida Training Center after contacting Ann-Mari Daly, the manager, about visiting their set up. Here the likes of Casie Coleman and Ross Croghan stable their horses, in a sprawling farm-like establishment out in the country. The first thing we noticed was the more relaxed vibe of the place, which although is located next to a major highway, feels very secluded once you enter through the electronic gates.
Not knowing who Ann-Mari was, or where we would find her, we headed for the first person we saw, who happened to be with a horse using what appeared to be a treadmill submerged in water. Curiosity always wins out in both our cases so we headed over to watch the horse, who was called Henry (Blessed Victory) who turned out to be a total poser at the sight of my camera when he emerged from the water.
|Blessed Victory, aka Henry, exercising under water|
|Henry, one of those horses who just loves the camera|
|Smarty & I with the enigmatic Jeff Fout|
I can't even begin to cover the things we talked about because we went from him working at Winbak Farm to his driving career, to stories of training a Thoroughbred that people had written off as useless, to comparing racing in the UK and Ireland to America and Canada...Jeff told us (and I believe jokingly, although with a sense of humour as dry and wicked as his I'm not 100% sure) that the day before he'd told his wife that he was leaving the house in Maryland to go to the shop...and ended up in Florida. Allegedly, she had no idea he was there, so when I was to send her a friend request on Facebook with a message explaining that I wasn't a crazy person, I wasn't to mention where or when I'd met Jeff. It made things difficult, which is why I left sending the message until a week or so after my return (by which point, if his story was true, he would have surely told her where the hell he was).
As we walked and talked he asked us whether we kept horses ourselves; I explained about the 11, consisting of a few broodmares, at which point he asked what sort of stock we had. I told him about Rita (Vain In Spain) who we had imported from Harrisburg in 2013, and as soon as I mentioned her sire, Artsplace, his face lit up. He told me that was as good a starting place as any, and gave me the one quote that for me blitzes every other piece of information available about that horse; if you trawl the internet you can find out Artsplace's earnings, his record, his career wins, information about his offspring, about individual victories...anything and everything you'd think you would want to know. Jeff was able to tell me something I didn't even think I wanted, or needed, to know. He told me that he'd driven Artsplace, and that he was "the singlemost intelligent horse that I ever came across". He explained that when people look at a horse they stand next to it, look it up and down, check its legs and conformation and height, give it a thorough looking over as if it is essentially an object. Artsplace did the same to the people he met. He regarded people with the same curiosity that they regarded him with. He was a thinker.
For someone so guilty of anthropomorphism as I, this snippet of information filled me with delight. I often fear that some of my fellow horsemen regard me with mild disdain as despite my best efforts to hide it, I often let this trait spill out publicly. Studies can suggest otherwise, but there will always be a large part of me that believes that horses think not too dissimilarly to humans.
I went on to talk about Nala, Rita's 2015 foal who had unfortunately passed away last summer, who was by Mypanmar; Jeff smiled and said 'I drove him too'. His description of Mypanmar matched entirely the opinion I have formed of the horse having met him at Sue & John Thompson's. He described him as aggressive on the racetrack, which fits with the nickname Smarty's uncle has given him of 'the Lion'. He is a horse that carries presence. Jeff and I had found common ground very quickly. Unfortunately, he had to get on with his work and we had the rest of the complex to explore but before we parted ways he insisted that we visit the farm in Maryland, where we would be taken on a tour of all of the youngstock, broodmares and stallions, before being able to jog some of the horses trained there. His last words to me were "and if you wanna go fast, we can go fast!". I really do hope we get a chance to make it to Maryland some day, sooner rather than later.
We watched a few more horses jogging on the track before saying our farewell to Ann-Mari and heading back to the car via Casie Coleman and Ross Croghan's barns. We had a brief chat with Ross who said London has to be one of the coldest places he's ever been (I would have agreed with him at that point, mainly due to the fact I don't think he knows where Slamannan is, although New York may well beat London for the cold in the time I was subsequently there). Casie was still on vacation but we had a chance to meet some of the horses in her barn, including Betting Line (Bettors Delight-Heathers Western-Western Hanover). In Ross' barn we came across a gorgeous chestnut by the name of Totally Rusty and a mare whose name reminded me of my mare Star (Shes Some Deal), Shezarealdeal (Western Ideal-Shezarealcaesar-Real Artist), a winner of $300,000 as a 2yo last year.
|Not quite Shes Some Deal, but Shezarealdeal!|
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our trip, which will feature our second night of racing at Pompano Park, a ride in the start car, gatecrashing the paddock, jogging horses in the sun, bumping into a familiar face and an evening in good company talking racing, dangerous and exotic animals and everyone's favourite 'Nanna'!
Over and out,
#1 Groom on tour
Writer's note: Since I began writing this particular post, South Florida Training Center suffered every horseman's worst nightmare when a fire broke out in one of the barns last week, killing 12 horses and injuring a further 11. Having only visited for the shortest of times, and not having met those directly affected, I was still deeply upset by the news and my thoughts and prayers have been with the surviving horses and all of the connections affected at this difficult time. Wishing the lucky ones a speedy and full recovery. RIP to those who did not survive.