01/28/2016 3:43PM

Giwner: Bongiorno earning his place on the leaderboard

Derick Giwner
Driver Joe Bongiorno is fourth in North America in wins this year.

At just 22 years of age driver Joe Bongiorno has held his own racing against some of the best drivers in North America at the Meadowlands. After four years of sticking with a steady diet of races at Freehold, Meadowlands and Saratoga, the New Jersey native has made a major career move. He ventured west to Northfield Park where he is forcing trainers and handicappers to take notice.

In just 66 starts at Northfield this year, Bongiorno has amassed 15 wins (22%) to rank fifth on the leaderboard at the Home of the Flying Turns. The numbers are flattered by the fact that the drivers he trails in the standings have two and three times the number of starts.

Every Monday morning Bongiorno either hops a plane or sets out on a 470 mile road trip to Ohio.

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“The plan was to fly one week and drive the next,” said Bongiorno, who left for the airport at 5 a.m. Monday morning only to find out his flight was cancelled and he had to drive. “I drive a Volkswagon and it is really good on gas. I only spend about $70 on fuel for the trip, plus $75 a night for a hotel room.

“Ron Burke let me know that if I came out (to Northfield) on Mondays I would get drives from him because Chris Page is driving at Miami Valley. Then Dave Bianconi (Dir. Of Racing) invited me as well and told me I would get drives if I showed up, so I thought it was a good idea.”

Bongiorno’s strong Northfield performances have vaulted him to fourth in North America for total wins in 2016 at 38 (as of Wednesday January 27). He is keeping company with top veteran drivers like 2015 national dash-winner Aaron Merriman, David Palone, Jason Bartlett and Corey Callahan. His place in the standings and win total are even more impressive when compared to 2015 when he tallied a career best 192 wins and couldn’t crack the top 50 for races won.

“At the end of the year I don’t see myself having 600 or 700 wins, but I definitely see myself having 100 or 200 more wins than last year,” said Bongiorno.

Bongiorno is driving every Monday and Tuesday card at Northfield as he sets out to make a name for himself the old fashioned way—with hard work. His immediate plans include the Northfield nights, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday afternoons at Harrah’s Philadelphia, Saturday afternoons at Freehold and Friday and Saturday nights at the Meadowlands.

“It will be a busy schedule, but that is what I signed up for when I decided to drive,” said Bongiorno. “I hope (the hectic schedule) will all pay off in the long run. Ronnie (Burke) told me it is important to have the work ethic and it is important to rack up wins. I’m trying to be the best I can.”

Of course, Bongiorno was able to garner some national press late last year when he steered Make Or Miss to a dead-heat win in the $489,400 Valley Victory final at the Meadowlands on November 21.

“That was a huge win,” said Bongiorno. “It all happened in a month’s time. Yannick (Gingras) couldn’t go to qualifiers and Ronnie told me that the horse had a stakes race coming and to do everything I could to get the horse qualified. I got him qualified but he was really steppy. The first time I drove him we finished second while full of trot, but he was still a little steppy. I knew if he was a little better we could win and Ronnie had him even better for the final.”

With Make Or Miss now being a 3-year-old trotting colt, Bongiorno is hoping for a special date on the first Saturday in August.

“I was fortunate to drive one horse on Hambletonian Day last year and didn’t do that well, but it was a great experience just being out there,” said Bongiorno. “Hopefully he comes back strong and I’ll get the chance to drive in the Hambletonian.”

While still young, Bongiorno feels he has done plenty of maturing since he started driving full-time in 2012.

“I was a bit temperamental when I started,” admitted Bongiorno, who feels he is now able to keep his temper in check. “You don’t see the top drivers getting upset; they turn the page after each race.”

Bongiorno mentioned a laundry list of trainers which he is grateful to for helping him get to this point in his life. For now, he hopes to put in his time at the track and move up the class ladder slowly but surely. 

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