Years ago, harness racing driverasked his dad, who owned a high-performance shop building race cars, why he got out of the horse business. The answer turned George’s life around. “He told me it was because he couldn’t take the drivers. He swore that if he ever got back in the business, his sons would be driving,” George remembers. His dad got a few horses, and George, in his early 30’s, got his chance. “He made me into a driver.”
Harness racing as a career wasn’t what George thought would be in his future, even as he helped his dad with the horses when he was in his teens. “I knew how to take care of the horses, but I never thought in a million years I would do it for a career because it was just too much work,” he said. “ I grew up racing Motocross, and boxing, and being a wild kid. I always wanted to do something else. But my dad got back in the business and that was it.”
Now at over 10,723 wins* in his career, George is humble about his character years back. He regrets what he calls “always being in fight mode. “I couldn’t get it through my head that you can’t fight everyone you work with,” he explained. “I went through a lot of years fighting with drivers. Now we’re all friendly and buried the hatchet, but I hope that one day they’ll forgive me. I was a really bad guy. I’m not perfect now, and I still fall really short, but Jesus holds my ear and drags me down the right path.”
At the, he’s won the Leading Driver-Wins title 14 times, including the last 9 years in a row; at Harrah’s Philadelphia, he’s been awarded the title 8 times. His success comes from a formula he follows daily. “I just go out and race, and then turn the page real quick when it’s over, and go back into fight mode,” he describes. “Going up against top drivers like Tim Tetrick and David Miller, you’ve got to have tiger blood running through your veins to compete. There are lots of highs and lows in this game, so if you let races get to you, it will drag you down real quick, and then you can’t drive the same.”
His family inspires him every day. “My wife stuck by me and has given up her life to follow mine. She put herself through school and gave up her career as an ultrasound tech. Some day, I told her I’ll do the same for her and we can move back to Florida and I’ll follow her life,” he said emotionally.
His son George is now 16 and is playing basketball at his high school Unityville, and since the games were played during the winter, his father decided to stay back here with his family rather than go to Florida as they would normally do, which was a decision that placed George in the top 3 at the driver standings at the Meadowlands’ winter meet.
Another Napolitano enjoying driving success from hard work and passion for the sport is his younger brotherWith over 3208** lifetime wins, he’s consistently been in the top 3 in the driver standings at Pocono for several years, and second to leading driver George. Anthony took care of his dad’s horses since he was a kid, and ran the stable at Pompano after his father passed away in 2006. Like George, he wasn’t sure that harness racing was something he could do as a career. “I had other things in mind, I wanted to be a professional boxer. I just wanted to do something else.
But it just comes naturally to fall into a family business than to go on your own and have to deal with another boss,” he said. He drove in the amateurs and then soon got his full license and made the transition to driving professionally.
Anthony decided to make the move from Pompano to Pennsylvania when things began to slow down at that track, and he bought a small farm twenty minutes from Pocono, where he’s based today.
He and trainer Marta Piotrow have been working together for several years. Marta, who has her degree in Animal Science and her Masters degree in Equine Reproduction, was Breeding Manager for Jeff Gural’s Allerage Farms and had been dating Anthony when he was involved in a serious accident at Pocono. She relocated to his farm from New York to help him recuperate and then started to learn the training end of harness racing.
“She’s doing very well,” Anthony said proudly. “She does everything! I just drive them. I step in when she needs my professional input, and she takes my suggestions and puts her own twist on it, and it seems to work.” He emphasized that it’s difficult for a small stable like theirs to survive, but they work hard and it shows in their success.
“Big brother” George has high praise for Anthony and offered his help to get him started. “I put Anthony on his first win at Pocono,” he said. “He came to visit me and I told him to bring his colors, and I had a horse that could not lose. His name was Yankee Lander. I made a driver change, right in the paddock, I said put Anthony Nap on him. I told him ‘Ant, put this thing on the gate and roll him’, and he did; he went in :51 with him! He made that horse go faster than I did! My little brother is so amazing, he’s so gifted and talented, and I’m so proud of him that he followed his big brother’s footsteps. Everything I did, he did. I boxed, he boxed. I raced Motocross, he did. I race horses, and he races horses. Everything I’ve done, he’s done, and he’s better than me!”
On the track, though, they are competitive and driven to win. “Oh, we fight!” exclaimed George. “My dad always taught us, maybe not the right thing exactly, to fight for anything. Me and my brother sometimes do fight, but we love way more than we fight.” Anthony agrees. “We’ve had some pretty aggressive arguments, but it goes away over time. We’re competitive on the track, but at the end of the day, we’re still blood, and we’re still family.”
George always had helped Anthony through the early part of his career to get drives, but things have turned around. “Now that I’m getting older, he’s trying to help me, putting me on his backups!” he laughed.
As for the future for both brothers, George is quick to note that, at age 54, retirement is not even on his radar. “Wally Hennessy is still driving at 65. I don’t know what my number is, but I’ll just let my body and Jesus tell me. I want to go heavy for a couple more years, provide for my family, and then relax.” Anthony, 39 years old, is looking forward to continuing driving the circuit and working alongside Marta, running their stable.
One word that was echoed from both Anthony and George was “thankful”. Both are thankful to be doing what they love every day; for their success, and thankful for their strong family bond.
The numbers (as of press time) compiled by Jerry Connors
*George Napolitano Jr.
Record year-2015-$8.57M/834 wins
Leading Driver-Wins – Pocono – 14 times
Leading Driver-UDR- Pocono – 12 times
Leading Driver-Wins- Harrah’s-8 times
Leading Driver-UDR-Harrah’s-4 times
North America Leading Driver-Wins-2010 (753 wins)
Record year-2009-295 wins
by Jennifer Starr, for the PA Horse Racing Association