The story of how Southern Oaks became the finest training center in Florida

by Murray Brown

Steve and Cindy Stewart were visitors at The Deck on Wednesday morning.

They were on their tour of the Florida training centers, which is an annual prelude to the beginning of the breeding season at their Hunterton Farm at Stoner Creek Stud in Kentucky.

They started up north in Ocala where they visited with their equestrienne daughter and worked their way south.

Although all of the training centers have their pluses, Steve couldn’t stop raving about Southern Oaks, now owned and managed by the Pinske family and built and formerly owned by John Simpson Sr.

I’ve always referred to it as Horse Heaven. Steve replied that it is not only Horse Heaven, but also People Heaven for the people who are fortunate enough to live and work there.

The only negative I can possibly come up with relative to the place is that it’s possible that Ben White Raceway, a formerly treasured place in Orlando, might still be a functioning entity if not for the building of the Simpson Training Center.

Throughout the years of its existence beginning in 1948 and named to honor one of the greatest horsemen in harness racing history, Ben White Raceway was known as The Winter Capitol of Harness Racing.

Before the establishment of Pompano Park, the majority of the greatest names in the history of the sport winter trained there.

When Pompano was built, stables such as those of Bill Haughton and Delvin Miller headed south, but a significant number of the outstanding horsemen who had made the place their winter headquarters remained.

The stables of John Simpson, Sr. and John Simpson, Jr. were certainly among the most prominent remaining.

Simpson, Sr. had long been an outspoken opponent of hub rails. He was of the firm opinion that they served no useful purpose, but perhaps most importantly represented a significant danger to both the horses and those sitting behind them, especially since close to the majority of the horses being trained there were coming 2-year-olds getting their first lessons.

One winter, John, Jr. was training an Albatross colt that he felt was his best 2-year-old. Something spooked the colt and he went over the hub rail, subsequently breaking its neck.

Simpson, Sr. was incensed. What he had long predicted had come to pass.

He went to Herman Holland, the track superintendent and demanded that the hub rail be removed. Holland said that he felt he couldn’t do that unilaterally without the consent of the majority of the horsemen there. He called a horsemen’s meeting and asked them to vote on the issue.

Surprisingly, the proposal was defeated and the hub rail remained.

To this very day, not a single person who voted for it has given me a reasonable reason as to why they voted the way they did.

Simpson, Sr. told his son Jim, “To hell with those fools. We’ll build our own training center. We’ll move ours and Johnny’s stables there and let these guys keep their hub rail.”

Not only was this a significant loss to the horse population of Ben White Raceway, it resulted in a loss of about a third of its equine population. But perhaps more importantly, it was a political blow to its future.

Simpson, Sr. had been a long time resident of Orlando. During that time he had made it his business to get to know all the mayors and politically influential people in the city.

He continuously let them know of the political and economic value of Ben White Raceway and its many contributions to the city.

Losing Simpson, Sr. caused the remaining horsemen irreparable harm in the halls of Orlando City Hall.

By that time, Simpson, Sr. was totally blind. Thus, he delegated his youngest son Jim to do the spade work for the building of his dream training center.

He purchased a large tract of land about a half hour northwest of Orlando.

He told Jim that he wanted trees, lots of trees. Jim purchased numerous saplings and had them planted. Those saplings today are a collection of beautiful full grown trees that are certain to impress anyone who enters the grounds.

Most importantly, he wanted to take care of the horses living there as well as possible.

Large airy stalls were built.

He wanted paddocks, lots of roomy paddocks; not the small kind found at many training centers that quickly turn to mud from lack of space and over use.

Most of all, he wanted a great racetrack. He told Jim to build a racetrack patterned after the one at Springfield. Although he was quite reliant on his sense of hearing due to his blindness, he said “I want the track to have a great cushion, so that I don’t hear the horses when they go by.”

All of his goals were accomplished.

Today and for many years previous, it has been the finest such facility of its type.

In the meantime, Ben White Raceway began to flounder. The loss of a third of its equine population was devastating.

Even worse, and in many ways the supreme irony, was that many of the horsemen who had voted against the proposal to remove the hub rail left the track and moved to the better equipped training center that didn’t have one.

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