A few years ago, he says, he found God, and it gave him a new focus. The discipline issues went away. His win totals went up. He remembers a friend telling him that, if he really wanted to see God's presence in his life, he should challenge the deity, ask for something that seems impossible.

Some men pray for love. Some for money. Napolitano prayed one night and asked for wins. He asked God to make him the best driver at the track in Pennsylvania where he was racing at the time. Then he asked God to help him win at other tracks too.

"I basically said, 'God, if you're really out there, I want you to help me win the overall racing title.' " He wanted the record for most wins in a year.

When the harness track opened, it drew A-list celebrities like Jackie Gleason.
Photo Courtesy of Pompano Park Harness Track Archives
When the harness track opened, it drew A-list celebrities like Jackie Gleason.
Mickey Mantle pictured at the track.
Photo Courtesy of Pompano Park Harness Track Archives
Mickey Mantle pictured at the track.

He started winning more. Much more. When the weekly win totals came out, Napolitano had 21, 23, 27, 25 in a week. Most drivers averaged fewer than ten.

"You know how they say hot hands get dealt good cards?" says Joe Pavia Jr., a veteran driver who's watched Napolitano's career flourish over the past few years. "That's what was happening. Once he got on a roll, he started getting all the best horses too." Pavia adds: "He also stayed healthy. That's one of the biggest things."

Pavia knows all too well the dangers of harness-track driving. Four years ago, Pavia was in a horrific accident at the Meadowlands track, near Newark. The horse in front of his went down in a thunderous spill. He tried to pull his horse away from the bedlam, but it was too late. He felt himself ejected from the cart, soaring through the warm New Jersey air and — nothing. The next thing he remembers is waking up in the hospital. His face was swollen, his arm broken, his organs jumbled and bruised. But a few weeks later — much to the dismay of his family — Pavia was back on the sulky, ready to race again.

Telling the story, Pavia shakes his head and smiles. "I'm a driver," he says. "This is what I do."

Napolitano knows he's been lucky. As the 2010 season progressed, his numbers kept going up, and he kept pushing. He compares his lucky streak to the home-run races of the late 1990s, sans the illicit chemical aids. "I felt like Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds or something," he says.

Since about half the people involved with racing at Pompano are originally from Canada, they compare Napolitano to a different sports legend. "He's just like Wayne Gretzky," says John Hallett, a trainer who's been involved with racing for 37 years. "He's not really bigger or stronger, but the way he works a horse... he just has that extra something special."

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.

"A run like that is fucking crazy," he says. "That's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. I just had to go for it."

At the moment, though, he's about to pilot his buddy's horse, the longest shot in the field. He finishes seventh and collects no money for the ride.


The bowels of the Pompano Park grandstands are filled with tight, winding staircases and long, rusty catwalks that go past decades of accumulated dust and handrails so worn that bald iron shows from under the paint.

"It's like the set of a Die Hard movie," says John Yinger, the track's director of racing. Anything could be lurking in these dark corners. "Some people get a little spooked."

Yinger has witnessed the most recent evolution of harness racing firsthand. To say the sport is in decline belies the short distance it has left to fall. What is considered modern harness racing began in Europe around the turn of the 19th Century. It quickly spread to North America as a popular alternative to thoroughbred racing. In an effort to bring harness racing to a warmer climate, prominent Kentucky horseman Frederick Van Lennep and his wife, Frances Dodge Van Lennep, built the Pompano track in 1963 for $5.5 million. And as soon as it opened, it was the most popular hot spot in town.

Photos from the old days show packed grandstands, with audiences decked out in tuxedos and expensive evening gowns with mink stoles. Every night, there were famous faces: Walter Matthau, Mickey Mantle, Ed Sullivan, Rodney Dangerfield. Through the years, the track hosted carnivals and fireworks and novelty races run by zebras and elephants.

"In the glory days, this was the place to be," Yinger says, more than a hint of lament in his voice. "Now, it's a dying sport." He shakes his head. "Pretty, pretty sad if you ask me."

There's been some tension between the horse people and the casino recently. For decades, the horse tracks, dog tracks, and jai-alai frontons were the only professional sports in South Florida. Then came pro football in the mid-'60s. Then in the late '80s and early '90s, the NBA expanded into downtown Miami with the Heat, and Major League Baseball expanded to north Miami-Dade County with the Marlins. The Seminoles opened a massive casino a few miles away in Coconut Creek in 2000 and, a few years later, a larger one in Hollywood.

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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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