Friday, 25 March 2016

Florida: Part 2 - Pompano Park

Welcome back for Part 2!

Day 3 - continued...

On the Wednesday evening we headed back to the track for our second night of racing.  Steve Wolf had arranged for us to have a ride in the start car, a Hummer which he had designed whilst working for the track some years before.  We headed to the winner's circle after the second race to be picked up by the start car driver and the starter and waited while the horses paraded on the track.  As the car began to roll quietly around to the start, Wally [Hennessy] appeared in the 4-hole to shout to us in the back that we should be dropped off by the paddock and he would take us for a tour after the race.

I don't know where to begin describing the experience of actually being in the start car.  Back when I was in Wales I started a couple of qualifiers and also stood alongside the starter at the beginning of a few races at Amman Valley so I've been faced with 5 horses travelling at 30mph before.  This was different.  It was dark and we were under floodlights; there were 8 horses on the gate and I'm confident we were going a lot faster than 30mph!  As I was seated inside the vehicle, I was literally eyeballing 8 racehorses who I don't think could see me for all the adrenaline coursing through their veins.  As we accelerated to pull away, we got to see up close the momentary chaos that ensues until drivers slip into their positions and the race settles.  Smarty and I both thought we would pull up in the vehicle like the start car does in the UK, but we drove around the outside of the track, parallel to the horses, for the full mile.

IT WAS AMAZING.  You're watching the race from probably the second best seat in the house (the first being in the sulky).  You're watching every move, every challenge, every flick of the whip up close.  You're actually travelling with them.  I can't recommend it highly enough to anyone who visits the track...and the best part is it's free!

Chatting away to Wally as the car began to roll.

After the race we were dropped off at the paddock entrance onto the track, where Wally met us to begin our tour.  He took us to meet Greg DeFrank, the Race Secretary at the track who much like our very own Karen Kennedy, is the main cog in the machine that keeps harness racing going on a weekly basis.  From there, we had to wait while Wally dashed out onto the track for a drive in the fourth, which he subsequently won, then brought his horse back via the paddock entrance to tell us to jump on the golf buggy and head down to the winner's circle for a photo.

View from the paddock bend
Colours in the Race Secretary's office
At this point I should probably mention, if I haven't made reference or suggestion to it already, that Wally Hennessy is like a whirlwhind.  He seems to be constantly fizzing with energy and I can only assume that his enthusiasm for his track, its facilities and the horses that race there during the winter, must be because he is immensely proud of them.  So he should be.  What a man!  His attitude is completely infectious and half the time I spent with him I was trying not to burst out laughing at the way in which he totally went off on a tangent trying to show me something else new and exciting.

Anyway, due to the fact that he essentially had a drive in every race thereafter, Wally left us to our own devices in the paddock.  It was here that I began my search for Jamie Macomber, in order to fulfil the promise that we would return to see her and Ricky.  My efforts went unrewarded, as the only person I could find with her horse, Deuces For Charity, was the groom.  Smarty bumped into Scott, the caretake for Boston Red Rocks, Doo Wop Hanover and Katch Kanna, and whilst I was busy taking photos of the horses in their stalls, I was distracted by a gentleman telling me it's unlucky to photograph a horse before a race because then it won't win.  This is the American equivalent of our 'if you win Best Turned Out you won't win the race', a theory I took great pleasure in disproving at many an Allensmore meeting with Dark Fox and Loden Scoot.  The same gentleman also went on to explain that the filly he was racing that night had recovered from an injury which had required numerous pins and plates in her leg, and showed me the x-ray photos on his phone.  Possibly the most forward and chatty person I'd met bar Wally, but more about this random stranger later (we did meet again).

Back to the paddock.  It's an enormous barn, filled with four rows of stalls, each of which is grouped by race (with a number hanging from the ceiling midway along the stalls to denote the race number), and then numerically by cloth number.  It was like being in one of the sheds at the Brightwells Sale, but knowing exactly where you would find each horse on the card simply from its race and cloth number (which is also its post position).  I never thought I'd get 'shed envy', but I did.

The Paddock

From here I bumped into Mike and Barbara Murphy, a couple we'd met the day before who had introduced us to their horses, including stable favourite Four Socks.  Tonight they were racing a mare called Lickcreek Francis, who Barbara told me didn't have the biggest chance from the 7-hole for the second week in a row.  I said it was 'lucky 7', gave the horse a pat on the nose and wished them all the best.  Francis went on to deadheat in the race, and Mike & Barb insisted I jump on the golf buggy and head for the photo in the winner's circle...again.

Lickcreek Francis & Barb Murphy after her dead heat victory
Day 4

On the Thursday we once again headed for the back stretch, which was quickly becoming our favourite place in the entire world.  Dan Hennessy was there to meet us, as yet again Wally was out on the track jogging horses.  Dan asked if I wanted to take a horse out, to which I obviously said 'yes', and the next thing I knew I was about to sit behind my first trotter.  Wally came back off the track, jumped from one to another and off we went to jog horses together.  The horse that I was lucky enough to drive was an aged trotter by the name of Super Duke, who aside from being a little strong was otherwise a delight to jog.  Now I've only ever jogged horses around Colin Bevan's track and our little track at home, both of which are only wide enough for one horse at a time.  Not only was the jog track at Pompano wide enough for 8 horses with around 15 horses jogging at the time, but I also had to avoid a tractor coming towards me in various parts of the track each lap.  Despite all this, I loved every second of it.  I wish I'd been able to take a full stable of horses around there!

Super Duke & me getting ready to head out
Giving Wally the 'where it all began story' including Runnis Smokey, my first Standardbred!
Super Duke, who was super to jog!
Wally left me for a couple of extra laps to whizz around by myself, and each person I trotted up alongside was happy to have a brief chat.  When I came off the track, I spoke at length with Wally's groom, a Swedish lady who has been living and working in Florida for 30 years.  She's had the right idea all along.

Wally had to shoot off to play golf (what a lifestyle eh?!) so we bade the team farewell and began wandering again.  We'd only made it past one row of stables when Chris Oakes came by on a golf buggy, instructed the guy driving to slow down and shouted to us that he'd meet us at his stables.  So off to his stables we went.

Chris started at one end of his barn and introduced us to each horse in turn, talking us through their sale value, their earnings and/or their claiming price.  We got about half way up the line when he stopped to introduce us to a two year old filly called Blue Beach, by Somebeachsomewhere out of Rainbow Blue...a full sister to Somewherovrarainbow (p,4,1:48f $1,341,348).  She cost $270,000 as a yearling and is evidently from a supreme family...and then Chris Oakes said to Smarty, "do you wanna jog her?".  He didn't need asked twice.

Ten minutes later I was sat watching Smarty jogging the filly around the actual track at Pompano Park alongside two other two year olds.  He is the jammiest git in existence.

Smarty jogging Blue Beach

That's what top trainers get their youngsters looking like...
Once we'd headed back to the track and I'd gotten over my minor fit of jealousy, Chris introduced us to Luck Be Withyou, somewhat his 'stable star' alongside so many youngsters.  All in all we must have spent over an hour with Chris, who talked us through his operation at Wilkes Barre, near to Pocono Downs, as well as the remainder of his Florida season.  That morning he'd never spoken to Smarty before; by the time we'd left he'd let him sit behind the most expensive yearling to come out of Harrisburg in 2015!

From Chris' stable we carried on wandering around, which is when we came across the gentleman from the night before who had shown me the x-ray photos of the mare with pins in her foreleg.  And so began our friendship with Mr Scott Schwartz.  He introduced us to his stable star, stable favourite, and guaranteed winner come Sunday night, Cadillac Phil, as well as Classic Carpet and De Vins Girl (the mare with the cracked cannon bone). Smarty made himself at home, sitting on Scott's tack box and quizzing him on everything from state official visits, to vets bills, to training methods.  Scott gave the frankest and most open account of racing in Florida, not the all-singing, all-dancing account that every well-trained PR person would do, for which Smarty and I were very grateful.  Everybody had been talking about the potential decoupling of the casino and the racetrack, but nobody had given us the warts-and-all version of racing on a daily basis.  Turns out it's not so dissimilar from racing in the UK and Ireland after all.

As with nearly every other person we spoke to, Scott was amazed that we had harness racing in the UK.  It was a joy to describe our sport to other enthusiasts, and slightly embarassing to admit that I have to work a 45-hour 'day job' to be able to afford to own and train horses.  I was painfully reminded of how much the sport is a hobby for me whereas for them it is a way of life that, even for the small man, appears to pay.  It was whilst stood chewing the fat with Scott that I was able to admit for the first time since my arrival in America that things in our sport aren't as rosy as we would all paint to anybody looking in from the outside.  He laughed at my description of 'The Bench' at Corbiewood, and how every man in Scottish racing comes out of the womb with a stopwatch in his hand.  Little did he know I wasn't joking...

That evening, Smarty and I donned our gladrags for an evening out with Scott & Stephanie Wolf, and Nanna.  Steve showed me the new venture he was working on (10wins10) before we headed out for a lovely meal at Rock N Roll Ribs, owned by Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain.  In fact lovely just doesn't cover it, it was AMAZING.  American food rocks.  We then headed back to Chez Wolf and chatted all things racing, from the Vincent Delaney (and proposed American guests) to the complete lack of information in British and Irish racecards.  Steve is right, our cards look pathetic in comparison to those in America.  I kept all of my programmes from Pompano so next time I see Roy Sheedy (BHRC Chairman) I'll let him have a good look at them.  That is what we should be aspiring to.  We seem to pick and choose which bits of foreign systems we adopt in the UK, and unfortunately it always seems to be the worst parts and never the parts that would actually work and have a positive effect on the sport.  But what do I know, I'm only of any use when I'm doing some donkey work!

Anyway, back to the blog and away from any bold political statements that may be printed off and used against me at a future date, taken out of context and to tarnish my otherwise good name within the sport (stop it Sarah), it was genuinely great to catch up with Steve and actually spend some more time with Stephanie (who I met briefly at the Vincent Delaney last year, but I imagine she was overwhelmed with all the people Steve was introducing her to).  THANK YOU both for your great hospitality and for putting aside some time for us, you are wonderful people and you have a lovely home.  And to Nanna, who provided the quote of the holiday: "Home, James!".

The third and final instalment will cover qualifiers like you've never seen qualifiers before, searching out some British connections, meeting a familiar face, my first attempts at betting the American way and victory for some new friends...

Hope you've enjoyed the read!

Over and out,

#1 Groom

This one's for N Luv Blue Chip.  Run free young man.

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