Jason Beem's Thursday Column for Feb. 24, 2022
Greetings everyone and welcome to this week's Thursday Column where I'm excited to interview my friend Gabe Prewitt. Gabe serves as the announcer at Pompano Park in addition to announcing at the Red Mile in Lexington. He also has like five other jobs in harness racing, but we'll focus today on 'The Pomp.'
Pompano Park is scheduled to run its last race on April 17, 2022 so I wanted to catch up with Gabe for some Pompano stories and reminisce some about what really is a fun track.
I'll be honest that I've never followed harness racing that closely, with Pompano Park being the exception. The last several years in the winter time I would often find myself watching Pompano just to hear Gabe, to root home an Andy Santeramo drive, or just to see if something crazy would happen like some of the stories Gabe will tell us below.
I hate any racetrack closing but this one is going to be particularly hard for many reasons, one of which is that I know how important the place is to Gabe and everyone who works there. So without further ado, here's my interview with Gabe Prewitt.
JB: What was the origin with you arriving at Pompano Park and what was the track like when you started compared to today?
GP: Oh wow, now this could be a long list... Still to this day I have people come up to me and say "Do you remember when...." and it's wild because it brings back memories to me that were almost forgotten.
Not all involving cancellations, but some possibilities of the most "Pomp" things to happen:
December 11, 2018
GP: I believe I first started having discussions with Pompano in the summer of 2013. The track was in pursuit of a new full-time track announcer heading into that fall, and they wanted to hire my great friend and mentor, Sam McKee. God rest his soul, that would have been the best hire in the world. As it turned out, Sam decided to stay at The Meadowlands I think mostly due to the uncertainty of the racing future at Pompano, but he heavily influenced them to consider me for the position.
Sam carried a lot of weight in the industry (rightfully so), and I immediately jumped from probably their 40th leading candidate to a contender for the position. Thankfully, I was ultimately selected for the position. I can remember John Yinger (Director of Racing at the time) saying to me upon arrival "If Sam recommends you, that is good enough for me"
JB: Living in South Florida in the wintertime isn't bad, do you have some favorite places to visit during your time down there each year?
GP: Living in South Florida has been a wonderful experience. I have way too many places to list that I enjoy visiting. Some of my favorite places when I got here unfortunately no longer exist anymore (Calder, Palm Beach Kennel Club), but there are still plenty of 'regular' spots. Flanigan's and Spanx are both very popular after race spots, as the staff treats those of us from the racetrack very well. As far as the off days go, I'm usually not too picky.. A great view and cold beverage are about the only requirements.
JB: You're one of the short list of people who had the pleasure to "Call from the Containers" at Gulfstream Park West filling in for Pete Aiello, what were your memories of calling in one of the most unique booths ever?
GP: Nerve racking. That's about all I can say. Obviously I don't have the same level of comfort calling the thoroughbreds as I do harness to begin with, but particularly not when you are standing on a case of paper towels in a 95 degree storage container with a view that is horrendous with no tv support. Everyday I walked out of there without a mistake I took a deep breath. Looking back on it, I'm thankful for the opportunity, but that is not something I would want to do on a regular basis. My calls were very careful and slow-paced compared to normal!
JB: So we know the Pomp is set to stop racing after this season and the final day will be April 17th. How has the year been so far?
GP: This year was essentially a curtain call we were given based on the wagering success of the last several years. Once decoupling was passed, the track was under no obligation to race. I am thankful that we got one last season to say our goodbyes, but as you can imagine it is very difficult as well.
With every passing race day, it seems reality sets in a little more. As far as business goes, it hasn't slowed down the #SendItIn Army one step. We are slated to have our second best season ever, only behind last year's record breaking year when many other tracks were shut down. Over the years it has seemed the less certain our future has been, the racing fans have doubled down on us even more. It is bittersweet, but I am trying to really soak in and enjoy every single moment.
JB: I had the good pleasure of having Wally Hennessey on my podcast recently, he's a living legend at Pompano, I know you guys are also friendly off the track, what are some of your favorite Wally memories?
GP: Wally is a first class guy on and off the track. It is so easy to promote a product when you have someone like him at the head of the standings and as the lead ambassador. He is not only the most competitive person I've ever seen, but he has a passion for racing like no other. He's done everything I have ever asked over the years, gone on podcasts, spoken to groups, gave rides in jogcarts, and on and on.
Just last night he spoke to a group of students from the University of Arizona Racetrack Industry Program shortly before the races. I mentioned when he was finished for the group to go out and get their picture taken with him if he won, to which he replied it didn't look like he had that strong of a night... In typical Wally fashion, he won the first race. I'm proud to call him a great friend, and our friendship will last after Pompano is long gone.
JB: As an older facility, there have been some strange things that have caused cancellation of the races at Pompano Park, what is the most "Pomp" thing you've ever seen working there?
Command The Fire won the 5th race and refused to leave the racetrack, causing a major delay.
March 29, 2017
Lights exploded during the middle of the Pompano pregame show and started a small fire just off to left of me on the set. (Which quickly ended the show... haha)
Sunday May 13, 2018 we had both starting gates break down simultaneously and the decision was made to move forward with "gentlemen's starts" for multiple races prompting this article.
On April 29, 2015 (Race 7) the camera man actually "fell asleep" during the 7th race of the night, with the camera actually tilting up to shoot the starts and sky for the majority of the race.
In January 2022, we had a 65-minute tote delay at 11:30 pm prompting the last race to take off at 12:38 am, and finally went official after another 25-minute tote delay a few minutes after 1 am.
I could honestly go on and on, we've had countless power outages, tote issues, graphics issues, fire alarms. I think it's all part of the "Pomp" charm.
JB: The great John Berry has been your on-air partner at Pompano for many years, he's one of the kindest men I've met in racing. How has the relationship been working with JB?
GP: JB is my main man. He is the consummate professional, and he is in multiple Hall of Fames for a reason. He has the most positive upbeat attitude of anyone I have ever worked with despite battling major health issues and all of the uncertainty with the racing over the years at Pompano. He is a huge part of the success at Pompano with his constant promotion and positivity, and I wouldn't trade our time working together for anything.
JB: Our friend and colleague Pete Aiello has been lobbying for a harness match race against you at the Pomp before it closes, will that happen?
GP: Sadly for Pete, it does look like it's a go. He has basically trolled me so long that I am almost forced to make it happen. As of last week, we now have our horses and a tentative date. I just want to make sure we get the details ironed out of how we are going to raise money for industry charities, and I also want to make sure he is not going to be mad after I embarrass him.
JB: What do you hope people will remember about Pompano Park?
GP: I just hope people remember that we didn't have all the bells or whistles as many racetracks (some might say any racetracks), but we tried to do the absolute best we could do every single night within our parameters. We put out the very best product we could, demanded the highest integrity, and tried to offer the customers a real value for their dollar with many carryovers and several low takeout wagers.
The people that work at Pompano do so because they love the sport and the track. We have had to deal with great uncertainty nearly every single year, but the staff took great pride in the wagering resurgence. We fought back from the extremely tiny handles ($83k total handle on opening night in 2013) to a track that was respected within the industry.
We tried to do things the old fashioned way by interacting with the fans, listening to what they wanted, and doing the best we could to treat them right. We are eternally grateful to those that stood by us through the years. I can tell you that there won't be a dry eye on the staff walking out on closing night, and I imagine it will be the same way on the backstretch and in the grandstand.
JB: Have you thought at all about what you'll say when the final race comes around the bend?
GP: I know I am eventually going to have to do so, but honestly I haven't at this point. It makes me too sad to think about it. I suppose I am going to have to call the race rather than bail out, as I demanded Pete actually come in for the very final race at Calder to send it out after I had called the rest of the card. I knew as a native South Floridian, the track really meant a lot to him. The last nine years have truly been a dream, one I was hoping I would never have to wake up from!