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Bongiorno Is On A Roll

Published: March 22, 2016 12:34 am ET

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Put your mind to it, and it’s not hard to imagine that you could become one of America’s most successful stockbrokers or luxury car salesmen. But at three different brokerage firms or dealerships at the same time?

He’s not touting pork belly futures or a showroom of $750,000 Italian sports car whose name you can’t even pronounce, but Joe Bongiorno, the latest darling of the Northfield Park drivers’ lounge, is a genuine triple threat.

Through Sunday, Mar. 20, Bongiorno, at the very tender age of 22, is currently listed among the top four drivers at not only Northfield, but also at Freehold and The Meadowlands, two tracks in New Jersey.

At Northfield, his 57 winners rank him fourth. At Freehold, his 45 winners have him in second place. At the Meadowlands, his 23 winners rank him fourth against an all-star roster of reinsmen.

Bongiorno’s hectic sulky schedule adds up to a lofty spot on the list of North America’s winningest drivers for 2016. His 125 victories place him fifth. There are two familiar names that he’s chasing – Northfield’s Aaron Merriman (1st) and Ronnie Wrenn, Jr. (fourth).

Hectic might be understating Bongiorno’s weekly work schedule. A resident of Colts Neck, NJ, Bongiorno starts with a seven-hour drive on Monday morning from home to Northfield where he drives in all or certainly the majority of the 15 scheduled races.

Bongiorno drives in another 12 to 15 races on Tuesday at Northfield, then after two nights in an area hotel, heads back to New Jersey on Wednesday morning for one of his two days of rest and relaxation.

Thursday through Saturday find him performing double-duty, driving at Freehold in the afternoon, which is 15 minutes from his home, then speeding off for an evening of driving at The Meadowlands, which is less than an hour from home.

Bongiorno didn’t start driving at Northfield until January 11, but quickly made a major splash when he steered seven horses to the winner’s circle on Mar. 7, a career high for victories.

“I love it here,” said Bongiorno. “The people are great and winning certainly makes it fun. The track surface is very unique. You can win on the front end or come from behind. Horses here, because of the banking, can live (be competitive) on the outside.”

Bongiorno has the pedigree to be as good as he is. His grandfather was Harold “Sonny” Dancer (who died earlier this month), a trainer-driver who developed world Champion Ricci Reenie Time. Stanley and Vernon Dancer, two of his great-uncles, are Members of harness racing’s Hall of Fame.

Stanley Dancer is considered by many to be the Babe Ruth of standardbred racing. Like his great grandson, Dancer began his career at Freehold. He drove the winner of three Triple Crowns and seven times developed and drove the Horse of the Year.

“I know I’m lucky to be where I am at my age,” said Bongiorno. “Maybe there is something to racing being in my blood. I know I’m very comfortable in the sulky. I really felt that way from the first time I jogged a horse. I was 14.”

Bongiorno was at Freehold on Mar. 10 when the track paid tribute to his grandfather. The body of Sonny Dancer took one last lap around the track in a funeral carriage before he was buried in a nearby cemetery.

“It was very moving,” said Bongiorno. “It made me think about who I was and where my family roots are.”

Bongiorno is the son of Robert Bongiorno, a former trainer who remains in the game as an owner. His mother is the former Barbara Dancer. He began driving professionally in 2011 at age 18. It was during senior year of high school and he scored his first winner at Freehold on longshot Mr Bennett on Oct. 1.

“I love baseball and played as a freshman, but when I got serious about harness racing, that was it. I would go to classes in the morning and then drive at Freehold in the afternoon. The track was only 10 minutes from my school.”

His fondness for baseball led to an opportunity he couldn’t refuse.

“I was around 14 and got to fill in three of four times as New York Yankee batboy,” said Bongiorno. “Got to have lunch and dinner in the clubhouse with Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher and Mariano Rivera. I got lots of autographs.”

At the rate he’s visiting the winner’s circle, Bongiorno will be signing his name for a growing club of fans.

(Northfield Park)


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