Cross the expansive, Disneylandian parking lot on a Monday night in March, and cut through the posh new casino, with its glowing bar, flashing slot machines, and cacophony of clicking poker chips. Step out back, over the rail, across a corner of the chalky track, and into the stuffy white barn on the east end. There's Napolitano, standing under a television with his helmet off, pulling the last smoke he can get from a withering cigarette. A small puddle of mud on the barn floor collects his ashes as they fall. Outside, a fine mist pours down on the track, quickly turning the dirt into a slick white sludge.

"It's one of those fucking nights," Napolitano says with dark congeniality. "It's fast and furious, and you just know any-fucking-thing could happen. Nights like this, you just fucking pray to God you do everything right."

Pardon the language, but Napolitano just finished his fourth race of the night, and the evening isn't going well. So far, he has one third-place finish that'll earn him about 35 bucks. After a five-minute break — enough time for a smoke and a visit to the bathroom — he'll race again, and again after that, and again after that. Often he'll drive in eight or nine races a night, with nothing but a cigarette between them.

Wally Hennessey and Joe Pavia Jr. have been regulars in the winner's circle for decades.
Photo Courtesy of Pompano Park Harness Track Archives
Wally Hennessey and Joe Pavia Jr. have been regulars in the winner's circle for decades.
Both Wally Hennessey and Joe Pavia Jr. (pictured) have their photos in the track's Hall of Fame.
Photo Courtesy of Pompano Park Harness Track Archives
Both Wally Hennessey and Joe Pavia Jr. (pictured) have their photos in the track's Hall of Fame.

As soon as he's done with the last of his smoke, he picks up the whip leaning against the wall and waits for his next horse. For harness-track drivers, control comes with a four-foot leather crop. He checks the program tacked to a corkboard by the bathroom to see which horse he's riding next.

"Ah fuck," he says. "This horse... " he pauses, looking for the right words. The odds of Napolitano's winning behind this horse are 30-to-1. "I'm riding this guy as a favor to the trainer. Friend of mine. Good guy. And you never know on a night like this."

The barn itself is part locker room, part frat house, and part marketplace, with each driver vying for the best horse and each trainer vying for the best driver. Napolitano, known for his aggressive racing style and his utter lack of fear, is one of the most sought-after drivers in the country. About half of his life is spent on the road, bouncing among the handful of still-open tracks, chasing the harness-racing circuit from Pennsylvania to New York to California and back. Sometimes he drives hundreds of miles between tracks, racing 20 times in a day, only to turn right back around at the end of the night. Every winter is spent racing at Pompano and living in Boca Raton with his wife, Kathleen, and their 6-year-old son, also named George.

Napolitano grew up in the horse business. His grandfather — the man for whom he is named — was a trainer in Long Island. So was his father. Napolitano was one of six kids in a family that never had a lot of money, but racing always provided life's essentials. When Napolitano was 15, though, his father swore he was going to get out of the horse game until his sons could drive.

"He was tired of dealing with the flaky drivers," Napolitano remembers. "Alcoholics, gambling degenerates, he was sick of 'em all. He said he wanted to have his own drivers."

As a kid, Napolitano was into anything that came with an adrenaline rush. He rode dirt bikes. He raced cars. He boxed on the Golden Gloves circuit for a few years. But he felt like those were all young men's games. He knew he wanted to do something he loved but could also parlay into a long-term career. Something that could provide for a family.

He got a job cleaning stalls when he was 17, literally shoveling shit for ten hours a day. He worked his way up in the barn. He volunteered to drive the horses on practice runs, then in qualifying races. At 22, he got his chance in a live race, right here in Pompano. When the gate went up, the pack left him sputtering in the dust — he finished dead last — but there was still something incredible about the experience. Zipping around the track, the whoosh of the wind in his face, the organized chaos of speeding horses and cracking whips, the magical glow of the lights overhead: There was no question this was for him.

Within a few years, his youngest brother, Anthony, decided to follow in his footsteps. He raced at the same tracks. He wore an identical jersey and helmet. He even bought a house in South Florida, just like big brother.

"You see success and you try to copy it," Anthony says. "The fact that he was my brother just made it easier."

The two are more than ten years apart in age, so George says there's not much rivalry to the relationship. "There's nothing bigger than family," he says.

Both brothers had natural talent, but it was George who quickly became one of the most dominant drivers at the track. The years he had spent sitting next to his grandfather as a boy, absorbing the world of horses, gave him impeccable intuition. As soon as he sees a horse run, Napolitano can tell if the animal is sick, if an ankle seems swollen, or if the gait seems slightly off. He also became one of the most penalized drivers in the game. He has received dozens of disciplinary warnings for everything from misusing his whip to testing positive for non-performance-enhancing drugs (drivers are subject to drug testing at any time). "Being away from your family, out on the road, that's a hard life," he says. He was reprimanded, fined, and on more than one occasion even suspended, but nothing kept him away for long.

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20 comments
Guest
Guest

The track must have paid for this article. They are clearly business partners. Look at the Beerfest ads all over the page. The New Times Beerfest just happens to be held at Pompano Park.

Frank Fan
Frank Fan

Frank Salive is the greatest thing about this track. Anybody who's ever actually met him knows he is one of the nicest guys ever.

horse143
horse143

wow i really want to learn about this horse racing thing more. :) thanks for posting this article.

Alzeke44
Alzeke44

i worked there  4 decades and they discarded me like old newspaper

John
John

This was a great article, if you know harness racing.  One exception;  Frank Saliva,  the present announcer, as far as accuracy and continuity of his race calls, wouldn't make a pimple on Joe Ricci's ass (the previous announcer).  Since the announcer switch, I haven't played a race at Pompano Park.  It is essential to me to have impeccable race calls. Any track with a half-ass announcer loses my business.

CMG? Really?
CMG? Really?

CMG? There is no page 7 of this article. Harness racing is dying. It loses money and everyone associated knows the end is close. That real estate is very valuable and the only reason they continue a sport that loses millions every year is because they have to in order to keep the slots and poker. Been to the track lately? That could be a hotel that would enrich the entire community without abusing animals for pleasure. Any time an industry is dying, they always talk about the guys who drive the trucks and sell the equipment. Well whatever they put in that space will have drivers and need equipment. Don't you believe we should live in a country where you are free to choose what business you run without the government deciding what archaic sport you have to lose money on?

CMG
CMG

If you want to fact check articles about harness racing, go to www.ustrotting.com where you can find out all information about harness racing driver wins/dollars won/horse earnings, etc. They have all statistical information and show the world and track records and provide up-to-date articles in their news area. Also, there were no bills in Tallahassee this year trying to remove harness racing requirements, or any horse racing requirements, from casinos as stated on page 7 of this article. There was a greyhound and jai alai bill, but nothing dealing with horse racing of any type. You can check out the website for the Florida House and Senate for that. Not sure who edits this stuff, but maybe try a Google search next time. Harness racing continues to have a multi-million dollar economic impact in the state of Florida with drivers, trainers, owners, breeders, training centers, feed stores, veterinarians, tack and supply stores, tractor/equipment retailers and service companies contributing to Florida's economy everyday. There's a lot more to the entire industry than you can see from spending a few hours in a race paddock.      

Walter
Walter

Michael, these horses do not gallop or go 40mph. Harness horses must either trot or pace during the mile. They also peak at about 35mph. Harness racing is a great and true American sport, with a majority of owners, trainers and drivers being born in th USA.  

Awargunisbliss
Awargunisbliss

 not sure who edited this article but you twice mention napolitano as the winningest driver in year with "Napolitano finished the year with 754 victories in about 8,000 races, besting the all-time single-season record by 20 wins, ensuring his place among the great drivers throughout history." The most wins by a driver in a year is Tim Tetrick with 1,189. It happened in 2007...http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Tetr...

Mitch863
Mitch863

the same with Jai alai, dog track and condo's. I watched Roosevelt Raceway fall to super crooked government and a drop from 40 thousand on a Saturday night to a few hundred. Bye Bye memories 

Dave Rand
Dave Rand

"Are you aware that harness racing is one of the largest spectator sports in the world?" Yeah, not in Florida, buddy. Track has 5 more years, tops. You should be happy any reporters in the US even care about this sport anymore.

Ddm
Ddm

Gladiators?  Chariots?  Are you aware that harness racing is one of the largest spectator sports in the world?  If you wrote an uninformed piece of garbage like this in France or Italy you would get 15 minutes of fame as an idiot!   If you were trying to make your writing stylized or intentionally esoteric, you missed the mark.  This was just so poor -- I finished reading it for the sheer amusement. 

Guest
Guest

I love George Nap Jr! Great story!

Guest
Guest

Wow.  Mr. Mooney, you just about did it all here!  You wrote factual inaccuracies, outright false statements, and loads of mis-information.  Did you, Ms. Funcheon, or anyone else at your newspaper bother to fact check??  Sheeze...what a paper you have there.  But it is typical of the way your paper routinely treats its readers.

Guest
Guest

Extended metaphor for journalism and newspapers there, Mooney?

Mark F.
Mark F.

I've been a fan of harness for 25 years and watched as the sport has crumbled and tracks have closed. I want to thank the author for a beautiful portrait of this last generation of great horsemen. There is something noble and dignified about strapping on the helmet and doing your job the right way night after night.

bajno1
bajno1

Something the reporter doesn't realize is that while there are only 200 people at the track, there are hundreds if not thousands of people playing Pompano's races via computer or simulcast locations.  The sport is more popular than the reporter paints.  That being said, the sport does need to make changes to stay relevant. 

Howie
Howie

 The horses don't gallop at 40 mph. Galloping is not permitted in harness racing. They either trot or pace.

Deirdra Funcheon
Deirdra Funcheon

 Oops. Funny, the writer originally had "trot" in there but I thought "trotting" sounded slow for 40 mph so I changed it to "gallop." Oops! Didn't realize they were technically different terms.  Thanks for clarifying.  -- Editor

Howie
Howie

Yeah, "funny" because putting factually incorrect statements into a story is hilarious especially when you're writing about people's livlihoods. Three pages later the story explains the difference between sprinting and trotting, but I guess the editors there don't read much either.

 
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