When I stay in Fort Lauderdale during part of the winter, Gulfstream Park is my racetrack of choice.  The ambiance is relaxing and the track and adjoining upscale shopping complex is new and immaculate.

Another storied racetrack is not far from Fort Lauderdale, but it does not receive the same amount of publicity as Gulfstream.  Pompano Park, or officially Isle Casino Racing at Pompano Park, bills itself as the “Winter Capital of Harness Racing.”  The facility has a long and glorious past and one that has close ties to a prominent American industrial family with deep ties to both Detroit and the Bluegrass region of Kentucky.

Pompano Park was originally founded in 1926 but was quickly shut down by the state of Florida because pari-mutuel wagering was illegal in Broward County.  In 1964, Frederick and Frances Van Lennep of the famed Castleton Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, brought Pompano Park back after successfully getting a ballot initiative passed in 1962 to permit pari-mutuel wagering.

To digress slightly, Frances Van Lennep was the daughter of John F. Dodge, who co-founded the Dodge Motor Company with his brother Horace.  Her older half-sister, Isabel Dodge Sloane, owned top-notch Thoroughbreds under the Brookmeade Stable banner.  Frances Dodge began her equine career raising American Saddlebred show horses at her mother’s Meadow Brook Hall estate in Rochester Hills, Michigan (now the location of Oakland University) and she is arguably the most successful owner of American Saddlebreds of all time.

In 1940, Frances Dodge rode the immortal trotter Greyhound to a world record under saddle for a mile in 2:01 ¾ at the Red Mile track in Lexington.

I vividly recall visiting Castleton Farm in its heyday as a nursery for both Standardbreds and American Saddlebreds.  A visitor could see up close famous stallions of both breeds in their stately barn.

The then-modern Pompano Park thrived after its reopening by the Van Lenneps and routinely attracted the best stables and celebrities from entertainment and sports.

Frances Dodge Van Lennep died in 1971 but her husband Frederick continued to own Pompano Park until his death in 1987.  The late John Cashman managed the racetrack for the Van Lennep estate until 1994 when the racetrack was sold to the forerunner of Isle of Capri Casinos.  (Cashman’s son Brian is the general manager and senior vice president of the New York Yankees.)

Until recently, I had not been to Pompano Park.  If you are aware of the history associated with the place, you realize that you are not at just any harness track.  Legendary horses and their human connections made this place special.

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