It was a very special Christmas for driver George Napolitano Jr., as he became only the eighth North American driver to record 12,000 victories in his career by guiding Pencils Down(Royalty For Life-Color Me Pretty) to victory by a half-length in 1:56 in the second race at Harrah’s Philadelphia on Christmas Eve. The mare is owned by Pollack Racing LLC and trained by Jeff Cullipher.
Other drivers reaching this milestone include Dave Palone, with more than 20,000 wins to date; Tony Morgan, Aaron Merriman, Herve Filion, Cat Manzi, Dave Miller, and Tim Tetrick.
Napolitano, who didn’t start driving until his early 30’s, was still emotional about the milestone several days later on the drive to Harrah’s on the last day of their 2023 meet. “When you start off driving like that, you don’t ever think that’s going to be a goal for a young driver,” he said. “It’s to be great at what you do, but you don’t ever look at being in the top 8 in the nation holding that many wins.”
“A lot of drivers have that many wins, but they started at 19. I started driving at age 31.”
George admits that he doesn’t take time off during the off-seasons of Harrah’s Philadelphia and Pocono Downs at Mohegan Pennsylvania. He’s which won the Leading Driver title 17 times between both tracks.
“I’m a grinder,” he admitted. “I’m 57 years old, and the reason why I try to stay active as I’m getting older in my career is because, if you don’t use it, you lose it.”
He commends many individuals over the years who have helped him along his road to success. “I’ve been blessed through my career with great trainers constantly giving me great horses to drive. There are so many that have helped me. One trainer that has really been a blessing to me this year is Jeff Cullipher. I’ve driven for him throughout the years, but not as his main guy. But I’m his main guy now at Pocono Downs, and he came at a perfect time. We get along great, and I get along great with his employees, and he’s a blessing in my life right now, at this stage of the game.”
There have been countless horses that George spotlights as favorites, but it’s difficult to pinpoint one or two. “I’ve had a few of them. Ruthless Hanover, who set the World Record of 1:46.2 at Harrah’s Philadelphia on May 28th, fastest ever on a 5/8 mile track. I won the Breeders Crown (with Homicide Hunter, 2018, Pocono Downs), and the Ben Franklin (Luck Be Withyou, 2015 Pocono Downs). It’s the claimers, too, like Atta Boy Dan. I’ve been blessed in my career to have similar horses to him that just make your life so much easier when you drive winners like that.”
Over the winter months, George is scheduled to drive at Dover Downs. “I’m going to freshen my batteries up until Pocono opens up in February and drive there. I love Dover, and (trainer) Sean Bier is the reason why I go there. He’s so good to me.”
His family is often in the Winner’s Circle with him, especially with for driving titles and awards, and they were by his side on Christmas Eve to celebrate his milestone. “My son George was in for the holiday, and he was there with me. That right there, him with me, was like me winning 100,000 wins!”
His son is studying Sports Science, and so far, has not indicated a career following in his father’s footsteps. “I told him, go through your four years in college, and see what Jesus puts in your path. You might tell me in five years, ‘Dad, I want to be a harness driver.’ But right now, I told him, I want you to get an education and be a smart guy. It’s in his DNA, and he doesn’t even know it.”
“I had no choice but to do it (drive),” George said. Years ago, he asked 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 got his chance. “He made me into a driver. My dad got back in the business, and that was it.”
Previously known for his temper, George has mellowed over the years, and while the adrenaline and testosterone flows while on the track, he’s made it a point to get along with his fellow drivers once the race is over. He extends words of advice and pointers to the up-and-comers. “Every young driver that I’ve come across I’ve given advice like it was given to me. They were very grateful and thankful. I talked to Jack Pelling a few times, and he had a write-up on US Trotting Association and he mentioned me. Johnathan Ahle is another up-and-coming one that makes a horse go real fast and he’s always willing to listen, and he does listen. I gave him some advice.”
While George has helped young drivers to refine and enhance their style, he is quick to applaud a driver he admires. “I really look up to this guy…and when I think of him, I see the the action figure ‘Iron Man’. Tony Morgan! He’s not bred the same way as real people! He’s absolutely a beast! I don’t know where he finds the dedication and devotion to do what he does, but every time I see him, I look up and say, if he can do it, I can do it. He’s got over 17,000 wins. I always think of him when I get really mad, and I’m working on it. I’m still not perfect. I’ve screamed at him before, and I’ve watched people race with him and get mad, because we’re out there, and we have testosterone built up, and we all get mouthy. As many years as I’ve driven with Tony, I’ve never heard him yell or scream at a driver. I always think to myself, I want to be more like that guy.”
George’s younger brother Anthony is enjoying a successful career on his own, and George’s pride is evident as he speaks about him. “I’ve had him under my wing for years. He’s an amazing driver, and basically, now, I turned him loose, and he’s on his own, and he’s doing awesome. He doesn’t need his big brother any more. I’m proud to say that.”
With no plans to slow down on his driving career any time soon, George is happy to stay fit and keep at it. “I want to do this for a few more years, but I’ll never really get out of it. I’ll probably do something (in harness racing) because it’s an addiction, really. When you don’t think it is, try and get out of it, and see. My family is my main goal, to make them happy. That’s the reason why I keep on continuing to grind out. I’m not the smartest guy in the world. I don’t have the schooling skills and college. It’s a great opportunity for me to make a nice living for my family racing horses.”
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