A conversation with Joe Bongiorno
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Joe Bongiorno plans on working nearer to home this year, but hopes to be no less busy. The 23-year-old New Jersey resident, who in 2016 set career highs with 2,754 starts, 399 wins, and $3.79 million in purses, drove frequently at Ohio’s Northfield Park last season, but plans to cut down on long commutes this season.
So far this year, Bongiorno has focused on racing at the Meadowlands, Freehold, and Yonkers. He will add Harrah’s Philadelphia to the mix when that oval opens April 2.
Bongiorno entered Wednesday with 45 wins this season, with 18 coming at the Meadowlands (where he is tied for fourth in the standings), 16 at Freehold (tied for fifth) and 11 at Yonkers (10th).
On Thursday night, Bongiorno has eight drives at the Meadowlands. The final three races, seven through nine, will air on "Meadowlands Harness Live" from 9:30-10:30 p.m. on SNY.
Last season, Bongiorno had 121 wins at Freehold, 77 at the Meadowlands, 49 at Philly, and 40 at Yonkers. He picked up the bulk of his remaining 112 victories at Northfield, where he visited the winner’s circle 101 times.
Bongiorno was the 2010 Amateur Driver of the Year, awarded by the U.S. Harness Writers Association, and was the USHWA Monticello-Goshen chapter’s 2011 Rising Star Award winner.
In 2015, he won (in a dead heat) the $489,400 Valley Victory Stakes with Make Or Miss in his first drive in a race worth more than $150,000. Last year, he competed in 14 races with purses greater than $150,000. Among those were three Breeders Crown finals, the Meadowlands Pace, the Messenger Stakes, William Haughton Memorial, and Cane Pace. He also drove in an elimination division of the Hambletonian.
Other highlights for Bongiorno in 2016 included notching his 1,000th career win and driving 3-year-old female pacer Divas Image to victory on the Ontario Sire Stakes Gold circuit.
Bongiorno recently took time to talk with Ken Weingartner from the U.S. Trotting Association’s Harness Racing Communications division about his career and plans for 2017.
KW: We talked during the early part of last year about how you were poised for a breakout year and it certainly lived up to that.
JB: Yeah, it turned out to be a great year. I ended the year one (win) shy of 400 and had my best year for purses. For the horses that I own, it was a good year for them too. So it was an excellent year. Hopefully I’m going to build on that again this year.
KW: Do you wish you had gotten to 400 wins?
JB: It definitely would have been nice, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not really a big deal. I’m just going to move on and hopefully put up some similar numbers this year. It’s going to be tough to get as many wins without going to Northfield, but so far it’s been a good start to the year. I’ve been driving a lot at Freehold and the Meadowlands and Yonkers and I’m really looking forward to (Harrah’s Philadelphia) opening.
KW: Last year you pretty much doubled the number of drives you had in any previous year. How much did that benefit you? People say the more you drive, the better you get.
JB: That’s true. And you learn different driving styles, like Northfield the racing style is a lot different. And I got to meet a lot of new people and build new friendships. It was definitely a good thing. It was just the driving back and forth became too tough. I was very appreciative of Northfield. It was a good run. This year I’m doing pretty well at Yonkers and it’s hard to turn down the money that they’re going for there.
KW: So what’s your schedule going to look like this year?
JB: It’s all going to depend. I’m going to go where I get the most work. I think when (Harrah’s Philadelphia) opens I’m really going to make a big push at driving over there fulltime. I want to try to pick up as many drives as I can and do it along with the Meadowlands and Yonkers, and when I can go to Freehold, I will. But I’m going to take a different approach at (Harrah’s Philadelphia) this year and try to pick up as much work as I can get there.
No matter what, I’m going to be traveling and trying to work as many days as I possibly can and drive as many horses as I can possibly drive.
KW: Looking back at last year, what stood out? What are you most proud of?
JB: Divas Image was a big help last year. I got to go to Canada and drive her in the Ontario Gold Sire Stakes and drive her in the Super Final there. She really turned out to be a nice filly. Hopefully this year as a 4-year-old she can make a little impact in the (Blue Chip) Matchmaker (Series) coming up at Yonkers.
KW: You had a win, a second, and a third with her in the Golds.
JB: She really turned out to be a nice mare. I’m really appreciative of the connections that used me. I would say she was probably the highlight of the year. And I hit my 1,000th win. So that was a milestone. That was definitely cool.
KW: You got to drive in a lot of races that you’d never been in before, like the Meadowlands Pace and Breeders Crown and Hambletonian.
JB: Exactly. Even though the Hambo didn’t turn out as planned (finishing seventh with Make Or Miss) it’s just really an honor to be, at the time, 22 years old and drive in a lot of those big races. I’m super appreciative of all the trainers and owners that have been supporting me. Hopefully this year I can build on it and drive some more stakes horses and maybe get a few nice stakes wins.
KW: You won the Valley Victory at the end of (2015).
JB: Yes, with Make Or Miss, and that really gave me a big boost toward last year. It helped get drives for sure. Another thing that stood out (last year) was the fourth-place finish in the Meadowlands Pace (with Manhattan Beach). It was a shame that horse had the outside and got away so far back. If he was inside for that race, he probably would have been a big factor. He was charging in the lane and just fell short of being third.
KW: Is it nice to get starts in those types of races and get that experience under your belt?
JB: Yeah, but I don’t really get nervous. That’s not my personality. I take every race the same; I try not to change my outlook on the race. Obviously, it’s going for more money, but the key is safety and trying to put horses in the right spot. I try to look at those races the same as a regular overnight race. I don’t really get worked up for them. I look forward to races like that, but you just try to drive the race smart and make as much money for the owners as possible.
KW: This is your eighth year of driving. Can you believe it’s been that long?
JB: Wow. It is crazy. Time definitely does fly. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. This is what I love to do; I love working with horses and learning about each horse. Every horse that you sit behind is different and has their own personality. As a catch driver the key is being able to learn what they like and what they don’t like. That’s what makes it so fun.
KW: Growing up did you play other sports?
JB: I played baseball and basketball but when I started jogging horses for (trainer) Buzzy Sholty, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I kind of put everything else on the backburner and I worried about getting better at working with horses.
KW: How old were you then?
JB: Like around 13 or 14. I always liked horses but I never really worked with them much. We owned a horse with Buzzy Sholty and we would go over there. I jogged one and I just felt super comfortable. I just wanted to keep going back and doing it more. I really started to get the hang of it and I wanted to start going training trips with the horses. I really enjoyed it. I just got hooked.
KW: What would you like to accomplish this year?
JB: I just like to build on each year. It’s going to be hard to surpass the 400-win mark this year because Northfield, I was winning a good share of races there. Not going there is going to slow things down a little bit. But I could win fewer races at Yonkers and make more money. I’m getting my fair share of rides over there and doing the best I can do. Hopefully, I can keep picking up more work and keep winning races.
As far as certain races, I don’t look at it that way. I just look forward to driving horses like Divas Image in the Matchmaker and stuff like that. Hopefully some horses come along for (trainer) Ronnie Burke that I’ll be able to drive. I own a piece of one baby, a Chapter Seven filly, and she’s going well so far. I’m hoping that works out and I can travel to the (New York) Sire Stakes with her.
KW: What’s her name?
JB: Chapter Of Love.
KW: You went to 17 different tracks last year. That’s quite a few.
JB: That’s a lot of tracks. It was a busy schedule last year, but this is what I signed up for, this is what I enjoy doing. I really love working with the horses and I want to drive as many as I can.--By Ken Weingartner