12/15/2015 9:49PM

Giwner: George Napolitano left in the cold for year-end honors

Nikki Sherman
George Napolitano, Jr. has 7,491 career driving wins.

A couple of weeks ago I released my year-end awards ballot and was asked about my selections for the human awards. While I don’t plan to go over those choices, I feel compelled to mention an injustice in the absence of George Napolitano, Jr. from the ballot.

Voters were given three choices for Driver of the Year—David Miller, Yannick Gingras and Aaron Merriman. All three are deserving of the top award for drivers, but where is Napolitano’s name? You know, the guy who as of Tuesday morning was leading the nation in driving victories at 832 and won 26.5% of his races in 2015.

It was a career year for Napolitano. He broke the 800 win plateau for the first time in his 20-plus years in the sulky and horses driven by him earned $8,567,733, more than $800,000 higher than his previous best year (2010). The New York native has 7,491 lifetime wins as a driver and 1,656 as a trainer.

[DRF HARNESS LIVE: Real-time insights from the DRF Harness team this Saturday at 6:50 p.m.]

Napolitano drove in his last race of the year on December 13 and decided to pack it in because his main tracks—Downs at Pocono and Harrah’s Philadelphia—are both closed and he wanted to spend more time with family. He did consider continuing his pursuit of his second title, but the stars did not align.

“I was handcuffed because I couldn’t drive down to Florida to race until (Dec.) 18th when my kid was out of school and by then I would have lost so much ground in the standings,” said Napolitano. “I know in my heart I was the winner. If you look at the stats, I had like 1,000 more starts than him (Aaron Merriman). But don’t get me wrong, he is a hard worker and I don’t even know how he drives that much.

 “I think about it (the decision) every night and my phone hasn’t stopped blowing up, but at the end of the day I made a decision to spend time with my grandfather and the family.”

Granted, Merriman will defeat Napolitano for the driving title, but those submitting candidates back in November did not know the final outcome. They only knew that he was involved in a close battle for the most wins.

Five chapters of the United States Harness Writers Association nominated David Miller. He will finish the year second in total earnings and won a record five Breeders Crown races this year. Three chapters nominated leading money winner Yannick Gingras, who accomplished the feat with nearly 500 fewer drives than Miller and has also won 50 more races than Miller to date. Merriman and Napolitano received one nomination each, with the Keystone Chapter, Napolitano’s hometown group, coming down with a split decision between Miller and Napolitano. I guess if you can’t get your home group in your corner . . .

The bottom line is that whether or not Napolitano would have won, it is hard for me not to see his name in contention considering his achievements during the year. According to the rules of USHWA, whenever there are more than three nominees for an award, past Presidents are asked to vote between the candidates and the top vote-getters are placed on the ballot. So he didn’t get the love from the Presidents that was required.

At the very least, I wanted to let make it clear that Napolitano deserved to be on the ballot and certainly is worthy of recognition for a fabulous year of driving. You have to give credit to the 49-year-old for putting up big win totals on a leaderboard dominated by guys mostly in their 20s and 30s.

“I’m doing what I love to do. It is in my DNA and I love the competition,” said Napolitano, who will take up to a month off before driving some at Pompano Park in Florida.

And give credit a bit more credit to Napolitano for putting his lack of nomination in the proper perspective. “I already got my award, my wife. Without her supporting me this wouldn’t be possible.”

Congrats on a great year, George!