Not even a three-inch deluge of rain could dampen the festive aura at Pompano Park on Wednesday night as the South Florida track celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Besides the appearance of hockey's Florida Panthers cheerleaders, the track was well garnished with the appearances of several drivers who appeared during the track's inaugural season in 1964, including Lucien Fontaine, Tom Merriman, Dick Macomber, Lou Rapone and Bill Popfinger.
On the racing side of the ledger, the gallant mare Pure Barre, given a heady drive by Mickey McNichol, took top honors in the $11,000 Open Trot, scoring a game victory in 1:54.3 over a track dulled by a second or two by the aforementioned rain measuring close to three inches in just 90 minutes.
McNichol sent the 6-year-old daughter of Classic Photo out sharply from the six post and was smart enough to let the dust--or, in this case, mud--settle early and nestle in the fourth spot during an opening quarter of :27.1 as She's All In (Rick Plano), House Money (Wally Hennessey) and Lugar (Kevin Wallis) were lined up one-two-three. Right then, Pure Barre was sent charging and she brushed up to take the lead heading into turn two and proceed to the half in :56.2.
On the backside, Jessesjo, with Ed Hensley handling the lines, was on the move from fifth and that one brushed alongside Pure Barre and stuck his head in front just short of the third marker timed in 1:25. In the lane, Pure Barre responded to McNichol's touch and put away Jessiesjo and then held off the late surging Dutchess Seelster (George Napolitano, Jr.) to score by 1 3/4 lengths. She's All In did finish third while House Money edged out Lugar for the fourth spot in the field of 10.
In a post race interview, driver McNichol said, "…this is a very brave mare. This isn't the first time she's been headed and then come back to win. When she's threatened, she just seems to dig in. She has a great quality about her…and that is the will to win!"
Pure Barre, owned and trained by Tom Gonsalves, now sports a 2-2-0 scorecard in four starts this year, good for $15,000. She's banked $193,865 lifetime.
The Pompano Park legends of a half century past provided some lively chatter for the festive crowd.
Fontaine, the newest Hall of Fame inductee of the Florida Chapter of USHWA, recalled the opening night back in 1964 when he drove Music Box to victory after spotting the field "15-20 lengths" at the start due to a break--that mile timed in 2:11.2. Of course, Fontaine has handled many of the sport's greatest stars including the sensational Forrest Skipper.
Merriman, author of three million dollar horses--Civil Action, Monte Hall and Energy Burner--recalled the trotter with whom he won on the track's official opening night, Feb. 6, 1964. "That would be Laverne Scott," he said, "but let's not forget Philip Brian, Buster Magoo, High Voltage or Miss Becky Pick…just to name a few." Merriman is still active today, helping Greg Wright train some of his youngsters.
Macomber, who trained and drove greats like Trim The Tree and Milynn Hanover, recalled the early days of Pompano Park when the 2:00 mile was a rarity--"I don't think we had any for the first couple of seasons," he said. (Eds note: We didn't!)
Rapone, still active in the sport as a trainer at age 88, has been in harness racing for over three-quarters of a century, having started as a caretaker for Mark Kyler at the age of 12 or 13. Rapone was one of the original 20 members of the 1,000-win club and handled such stars as J. H.Primrose, Pole Adios and Jimmy Norman.
Popfinger recalled his opening season wins at Pompano Park with Awol and Nevele Honeytime, among others. Popfinger, of course, has handled many champions, including 1978 Jug winner Happy Escort, Happy Motoring, Praised Dignity, Lady B Fast, Kassa Branca, Cue Light and A'Nutter Butter, to name a few.
All in all, it was a festive occasion precluding Pompano Park's $20,000 Championship Driver's Challenge which begins Sunday, Feb. 9 and runs through mid-March. (Pompano Park)