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Florida's forgotten "Winter Capitals of Harness Racing"
Thursday, January 26, 2012 - by Tim Bojarski

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If you mention harness racing, winter and Florida all in the same breath, I would venture to guess that the first thing out of the mouths of the majority of people would be Ben White Raceway. And a fine answer that would be. But the history that links the seasonal migration of Standardbred aficionados and their get to the Sunshine State goes well beyond the first time Hall of Famer Benjamin Franklin White ever stepped foot in Orlando.

Although Ben White established a permanent training center on the site of cattle exposition grounds in the city of Orlando in 1947, it was not the sports initial foray into avoiding the snow. There were many ventures started for both training and racing Standardbreds where the oranges grew going back to the 1800s.

According to the New York Times, in 1892 there was a mile track built on the sandy plains just outside of Orlando where a trotting, pacing and runner meet was held in conjunction with the state fair. It was reported to have been great racing, and the meet was a success.

In December of 1894 the paper reported that there were harness meets being held at half-mile tracks located in Kissimmee, Jacksonville, Sanford, Ocala, Tampa, Pensacola and Tallahassee. It was said that the managers of these meets were forming a winter racing circuit where each of the seven tracks would have a four or five day meet, twice during the year. They stated with all the horse lovers from the north down for the winter, a profitable year was expected.

John F. Stevens

Another early endeavor reported by the New York Times was really cutting edge at the time. It was the construction of a mile kite track in East Jacksonville, which was going to replace a half-mile oval there. The project was led by Maine native John F. Stevens, who was an American engineer who built the Great Northern Railway and later became the chief engineer on the Panama Canal project between 1905 and 1907. He and other capitalist from Chicago backed the project that was slated to be opened in 1895.

F.N. Burt

Spring Garden Ranch came on the scene in 1912. F.N. Burt, from Buffalo, was an innovator in graphic design and the most respected box manufacturer on the planet in 1896. He was also an entrepreneur who was interested in developing agricultural and leisure enterprises. He oversaw the makeover of a parcel of raw land in Deleon Springs into Spring Garden Ranch. It was originally home to a huge complex featuring sugar cane, cotton, water melons, corn, cattle and cactus, but would then see the transition into housing horses and eventually the installation of a training track. Spring Garden Ranch has been going strong ever since and today hosts some of the best horses and horsemen in the sport.

Burt was known as an early developer in Florida and regardless of what he did, he did it well. The original 400,000 sq. ft. factory complex located on Seneca Street in Buffalo is entirely intact -- every building ever constructed, from 1901-1927, still stands. Likewise, in Florida, many of the original barns and buildings at Spring Garden Ranch that Burt erected back in 1912 are still standing, one hundred years later.

Oddly enough, even the venerable Pompano Park (which opened in 1964) actually started as a winter training facility for Castleton Farms. There was a derelict Thoroughbred track on that site that had not hosted racing since 1926 when it was shut down for unauthorized pari-mutuel betting. While flying to Miami in 1953 Frederick Van Lennep spotted the weed-covered oval and former racing plant from the air and decided it would be a good location for Castleton’s winter training base.

Van Lennep later purchased the gaming license of the Key West Kennel Club and transferred it to Broward County to bring his dream of pari-mutuel harness racing to south Florida.

Through the years, since Ben White Raceway was opened, there have been other tracks that hosted winter harness racing in Florida that have come and gone. Names like Ponce De Leon Raceway in Bayard, Seminole Park in Casselberry and Florida Downs in Tampa all come to mind. But the widespread variety of venues the state had enjoyed in years past are now limited to only a few.

So if you have the opportunity to break up your winter this year with a quick trip down south, and find yourself in any of the locations I have mentioned, rest assured that the ghosts of racing past are still circling a vanished oval that once attracted the attention of those seeking refuge from the cold, just like you.

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.

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