The 2022 racing season at the Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono ended on Saturday, November 19th, and the meet was a successful and memorable one. As always, the end of the season spotlights the Leading Driver, and this year, the honor went to Matt Kakaley, earning this milestone ten years after achieving it the first time.
Matt finished the 2022 season at Pocono with 262 wins, total purses of over $3.2M, and a UDRS of .361. Long-time Pocono leading driver George Napolitano Jr. was second on the driver standings, and brother Anthony Napolitano was third.
“I had some goals this year,” Matt said, while on the road, as is the norm for the busy driver. “I started out (the season) really good at Pocono, things were going really good. I made it a goal in the middle of the year, maybe a little earlier than that, to really push to be the leading driver. I wanted to also reach my best year in purses, and best year with wins, and I made that my goal too. I’ve been working really really hard to achieve it. The Pocono title was a huge goal of mine. I was able to accomplish that, and it looks like I’m going to be able to accomplish the other two goals. It’s good!”

Working really hard has always been the motto for the 34-year-old Kakaley, who developed his

Photo Credit to Curtis Salonick

love of horses at a young age. “My grandfather bought a horse farm in Michigan, and that’s how my father (driver John Kakaley) got involved, and then he met my Mom (trainer Linda Kakaley). I spent my younger years at the farm in Michigan, and then we moved to Florida when I was 12 years old.”

A few years later, Matt began the journey toward his driving career. “When I was 16, I got my Qualifying License at Pompano Park, and I started driving down there when I was 18.”
As a young driver at Pompano Park, Matt started out driving in the Amateur races. “I drove in those races just to get my feet wet. Back then, there was such a deep driving colony, between Wally Hennessy and Bruce Ranger, and Kevin Wallis, among other guys that were well-established. Dave Ingraham, too. He’s got 6000 wins or more. My dad (John Kakaley) was driving there. So just for me to get my feet wet I started racing in the Amateurs for like five or six months, and then I turned professional. Pompano was a great place for me to start and learn, but it wasn’t going to be a place where I was going to be able to take off. I had to move somewhere.”

Matt developed a strong and lasting working relationship with Ron Burke, and soon left Florida

Photo Credit to Curtis Salonick

to work with him and his barn. “I went to Ohio to work with the Burkes and drive for them in 2007”, he remembered. “Then Ronnie had me move out to Pocono, and he sent some horses out there for me and Annie (Larrabee) to train, and he used me to drive. It was a big opportunity to drive for those guys, and for them to give me a shot at such a young age, move me up here and give me an opportunity on the East Coast. It was a big advantage to come out here to have a barn like that to drive for. It just kind of catapulted me.”

Doors started opening for Matt with the help of Ron Burke, and soon bigger races and drives on well-known horses followed. “ I won with Foiled Again at Northfield Park when I was 21. Ron put me in big races at a young age and gave me opportunities to put my talent out there and he put me in the spotlight. He put me in those big races, and I won some big races for him.”
“It was all a dream come true, to drive in those races at such a young age, and to be driving horses for Ron Burke, leading trainer, and to be driving horses like Foiled Again, Sweet Lou, All Bets Off, Won The West. The list of horses I got to drive for him were some of the best horses ever to step foot on the racetrack!” Matt said emphatically.
His driving career has taken him from Pocono to Yonkers; from the Meadowlands to the Meadows Racetrack; from The Red Mile to the home of the Little Brown Jug. “I wouldn’t say I have a favorite track, but it’s always fun to go to different tracks, though. It’s always fun to go to Delaware, Ohio, and Lexington. It’s fun to travel around for these races! If you put a big purse on it, it’s going to be exciting! It’s going to be fun to go. It doesn’t really matter what track it is.”

Looking back at his career so far, one night stands out as the highlight and the most memorable.

Photo Credit to Breeders Crown

“Breeders Crown 2018. That was probably the best night of my career, for sure. It was just one of those nights where a lot of things were going my way. I won the two Breeders Crowns (3-Year-Old Filly Pace – Percy Bluechip and 3-Year-Old Colt and Gelding Pace – Dorsoduro Hanover), and I had a second with Filibuster Hanover in the Open Pace. I had some thirds. Yeah, that was my night. That was probably the best night I’ve ever had,” he said.

And to win it at Pocono made it special for Matt, who was driving there regularly. “It absolutely was special, and I also had just come back from a bad accident (March 2018 at Yonkers). I didn’t know how bad it would be, the doctors told me I might lose my eye. So to go from an all-time low like that too, seven months later, to stand in the Winner’s Circle in the Breeders Crown, center stage, my home track, with all my family and friends there. It was definitely special.”
Going into this season at Pocono, Matt did things a little differently. “The biggest change I made was that I wasn’t 100% loyal to one barn. I was looking out for myself. I wanted to drive the best horse I was listed on. So if that was for Ronnie Burke, I was taking it. If it was for Travis Alexander, I was taking it. If it was for Jim Ray, I was taking it. Whatever horse was the best one I was listed on, that’s what I was doing.”
“It opened other doors,” he admitted. “Other people started using me, giving me opportunities it all seemed that it all worked out pretty good that way.”
Of Travis Alexander, Matt speaks highly of the young trainer. “His barn is expanding, and in the last couple of years he’s been getting more overnight horses at Yonkers and Pocono, and now he’s buying more babies at the sale. We kind of joined forces at the right time. It’s worked out pretty good! He does a great job. I have all the confidence in the world in him. I’m sure he’s got a lot of confidence in me. I think we make a really good team. Hopefully, we can keep going and keep climbing to the top together.”
With Pocono closed for the season, Matt plans on driving at Yonkers for the winter, on their five-day-a-week schedule.
Photo Credit to Matt Kakaley
Regardless of where he drives, Matt has a cheering section that includes long-time girlfriend Annie Larrabee; mom Linda; dad John; and his grandparents on his mother’s side. His paternal grandmother, Barbara Kakaley, passed away last year, and would always watch his races via simulcast at Northville Downs.
His biggest fan, though, is his and Annie’s daughter Arianna. “She’s always cheering for me! She watches as much as she can, but I race so much. I always give a wave and blow a kiss just in case she’s watching. Because if I forget… she lets me know!!! She’s not very happy if I forget,” he laughed.
Cover Photo Credit to Breeders Crown
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