01/28/2016 4:34PM

Harness: Napolitano enjoying his winter of racing

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After taking last winter off, harness racing driver Anthony Napolitano decided to spend this winter racing at Yonkers and the Meadowlands. He is more than happy with the decision, and hopes it leads to more opportunities.

Napolitano is the leading driver at the Meadowlands so far this year, with 11 wins in 64 starts. He also has raced three Thursdays at Yonkers, where he has picked up three victories in 12 starts. His combined winning percentage at the two ovals is a solid 18.4 percent.

“Last winter I took off and it was so boring,” Napolitano said. “I thought I would really like it, but after a couple months having off you can’t wait to get back to work. I appreciate it a lot more. Everything seems to be working out.”

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In previous years, the 34-year-old Napolitano spent winters competing at Pompano Park in Florida. Napolitano now lives in northeast Pennsylvania and drives regularly at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono, which is closed for live racing until March 19. Shuttering his farm and heading to Florida for the winter was no longer a practical option.

“Yonkers and the Meadowlands are close enough to me for me to race over the winter instead of going back to Florida,” Napolitano said. “I like to go to visit family (in Florida) but for work it’s tough because you have to move everything down there. I knew after buying my farm that over the years I would look to the Meadowlands and Yonkers in the winter. I’m not a fan of the cold, but I knew I had to make something happen.”

Last year Napolitano ranked third in wins at Pocono, behind older brother George Napolitano Jr. and Simon Allard. For the season, Anthony Napolitano won a total of 188 races and $2.44 million in purses, his best totals since 2009 when he won 295 times (with more than half the victories coming at Pompano Park) and $2.52 million.

“I had a good year at Pocono and guys were asking me if I was going (to the Meadowlands),” Napolitano said. “I decided to go opening night and I ended up doing OK. I’m just going to enjoy it now.”

Napolitano followed his father and brother into harness racing, although he also has a passion for racing cars and still can be sometimes found at a dragstrip located near his farm. Napolitano’s brother, George, won a track-record 407 races at Pocono in 2015 and captured his ninth title for wins at the oval. George has won 7,506 races in his career and was the national leader in victories in 2010. He finished second to Aaron Merriman last year, with 832, but established a personal best with $8.56 million in purses.

“We’re very close off the track, but very competitive on the track,” Anthony Napolitano said of his relationship with George. “He’s really competitive. Sometimes we hurt each other’s feelings on the track, but off the track it’s like nothing ever happened. We keep it a business. We respect each other. We’re blood brothers for life so you’ve got to leave it on the track.

“That goes for any of the drivers. We try to do as good as we can. Things happen out there and you can’t take it personally.”

Anthony Napolitano has won 2,021 races in his career, notching triumph No. 2,000 on Dec. 12 at the Meadowlands.

“It’s not great in a lot of people’s eyes --- a lot of drivers have a lot of career wins --- but I started at Pompano and it was very tough there because there were two or three guys that won all the races so I had to dig deep. At the tracks I’ve been at, I’ve had very tough (driver) colonies to deal with. I’m happy to have 2,000 wins and I’m looking for many more. I feel that I’m getting better with age and I learn something new every night.”

Napolitano’s maturation as a driver includes being more patient on the racetrack.

“Experience really shows,” Napolitano said. “I had lots of times where I thought I should pull first over and it was no good. I’ve been in those situations so many times over the years that now instead of taking that chance and over-driving, I’m more patient and I sit in. Most times it is the best move, especially on a big track like the Meadowlands. Sometimes I’ve gotten myself beaten by over-driving because that stretch is very long. I’ve had luck with not being too aggressive and slipping through late.

“It’s very hard out there; people don’t understand. One split second a guy is on top of you making a move and you’ve missed your chance. There’s a lot going on in each and every race. I know you’re only as good as your last drive, but I’ve learned to keep my composure and keep grinding away. I know every night isn’t going to be a good night. I used to take it home with me, but now I leave it on the track and keep my focus; just take a step back and regroup.”

Napolitano hopes a strong winter will help him gain the faith of more trainers and owners in the future.

“I just want to show people that if I have a little power I can compete too,” Napolitano said. “I’m just happy that people are seeing that I’m a late-bloomer and I am getting better at what I do as I mature. Hopefully people will see I can drive a young horse and I’ll get lucky and get a decent horse to drive in some of the stakes races.

“But I just feel blessed to have a career like this. I’m very thankful. I couldn’t be happier.”

-Courtesy of Harness Racing Communications, a division of the U.S. Trotting Association. For more information, please visit www.ustrotting.com