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Pompano Beach Harness Racing: A Select Group of Drivers Carries on With an Endangered Sport

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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.

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.

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.


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Michael J. Mooney