About Payson Park (cont.)

Florida Horse CampPosted by Greg Melikov


"We're laid back," says Mike Rivers, a former trainer who years ago became the manager of the complex, which includes a pair of one-mile tracks, widely spaced, white-and-blue barns. "You take your time out here." Out here seems like the sticks, but isn't far from Stuart, airports or Interstates 75 and 95 - and Gulfstream Park is 90 miles south as the horse vans travel. The season runs from Oct. 1 to April 30th. "We have more than a 90 percent return rate," Rivers says.

One prime reason: the one-mile dirt track. "The way the track was built is the key to the training center," says owner Virginia Kraft Payson, who has a home on the property. "It's a wonderful track." Constructed in the mid-1950s, it has a 29 inch base with a 7- to 8-inch cushion of sand and loam. Compare that to two other South Florida main tracks: Gulfstream's 13-inch base with a cushion 3 1/8-3 1/4 inches and Calder's 12-inch base with a 4-inch cushion. The track is deep, the track is consistant, the track is safe. "The horses don't come down hard on it - they sort of glide," Rivers says, using the palm of one hand to demonstrate.

"We have no problems. A horse may get loose in the barn area, but we call security to close the front gate. The horse usually runs around to another horse and stops." The turf course is mainly used for galloping two days a week. Both tracks are open from daylight to 11 a.m., Rivers says. "They're (trainers) on their own schedule." The trainers include Hall of Famer Bill Mott (youngest trainer inducted), who had a home built in nearby Palm City. "Cigar spent two winters here," Rivers points out, "and nobody bugged him to run when Mott was not ready to run him. Jerry Bailey came out to work him and you knew they would be great."

Other trainers who live close to Payson, either owning a home or renting, include Christophe Clement, Roger Atfield, John Hennig, The Olivers, and Bill Harrigan. Virginia Payson and her late husband Charles, who died in '85, purchased the complex in August 1980 when it was known as the St. Lucie Training Center. "It was in great ruin," she recalls. "We used every piece of heavy equipment in South Florida to redo the place, including the track, barns and drainage system." Payson Park, however, managed to reopen in time for the 1980-'81 season that October.

Rivers initially assisted trainer Dick Lundy, who trained at that time for Payson, before returning to the training center as manager. Now he lives year-round up the road from where he was born: West Palm Beach. "When the horses start departing in the Spring, we start getting ready to open in October," says Rivers, who directs a permanent staff handling maintenance and security year-round. "It takes four to six weeks to get the dirt track ready. The dead grass is pulled out by hand." Payson says horses stabled at her complex always have an edge. "It's so tranquil and peaceful here. Green grass all around. The horses are happy here. So are the trainers.
"And happy horses win."