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A New And Improved Make Or Miss?

Published: August 4, 2016 5:04 pm ET

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Joe Bongiorno is in position to become the youngest driver to ever win the Hambletonian, harness racing’s most prestigious event. That can lead to some pretty anxious moments in the days leading up to the race.

But the 22-year-old from Colts Neck, N.J., has a great way of not thinking about it. He just doesn’t give himself the chance.

With the 91st edition of the Hambletonian, presented by Mullinax Ford, set to take place at the Meadowlands on Saturday (Aug. 6), Bongiorno will be driving 20-1 longshot Make Or Miss out of post three in the first elimination. Rather than dwell on the magnitude of what he is doing, Bongiorno just stays busy.

He has not had a day off in three weeks. This week, he raced at Yonkers on Monday and Tuesday and Harrah's Philadelphia on Wednesday, and will compete at Yonkers on Thursday, Philadelphia Friday afternoon and the Meadowlands Friday night. After the Hambo, trainer Tony Alagna is flying him to Vernon to drive some Sire Stakes on Saturday night.

“I think the more horses you drive, the sharper you stay,” he said. “As long as you’re not getting run down it’s OK. I’m still young. I can do this without getting too exhausted and too tired.”

Named 2011 National Amateur Driver of the Year by the U.S. Harness Writers' Association and 2011 Rising Star Award winner from the Monticello-Goshen chapter of USHWA, Bongiorno is enjoying his finest season to date. He has already amassed career highs in purse starts (1,565), firsts (254), seconds (227) and thirds (192). He has $1,959,235 in earnings, just $14,453 shy of last year’s all-time high; and credits trainers such as Richie Johnson, Alagna and Burke for giving him quality horses to drive.

Growing up within an hour of the Meadowlands, Bongiorno and his harness racing family have attended Hambletonians since he was a child. Despite his youth, he understands as much as any veteran what the race means.

“I was on my way back from Canada the other day, so I was sitting at the airport watching the post position draws,” he said. “You just watch that press conference video and see all the fans in the videos of the Hambletonians back in the day. It just gives you chills to watch a video like that. When I was just starting out, I never thought I’d be driving here this young.

“You’re racing in the most prestigious race in harness racing. I’m doing it in my favourite track. There’s nothing like it. It’s an awesome place to race, Jeff Gural has done an unbelievable job keeping the place going. Just to race in this race is awesome and if I get lucky enough that things click and the horse happens to do some good, there’s no words to explain how it would feel.”

Bongiorno got his break last November when he drove Burke’s Make Or Miss to a dead heat win in the $489,400 Valley Victory Stakes for two-year-old trotters. It was his first drive in a race worth more than $150,000.

“When I got lucky enough to pick up Make Or Miss and we got to the dead heat in that Valley Victory final, I knew he was my horse to drive this year,” Bongiorno said.

That has not been the greatest of rewards for the driver, as the horse is winless in four 2016 starts, making breaks in three of them. Coming off a two-year-old season in which he had two wins and one second for $214,445, he has earned just $1,532 during his sophomore season.

There is, however, another side to the story.

“So far this year, things haven’t really clicked with this horse,” Bongiorno said. “But on the other hand, Ronnie did make some shoeing changes that he and I both agreed on, that we thought would help the horse stop interfering. I watched the horse train (Wednesday) morning, Ronnie trained him himself, and the horse looked the best he’s ever looked. He looked absolutely phenomenal.”

The handlers are hoping the alterations will stop Make Or Miss from getting in his own way.

“He hits his hind shin pretty hard and I think that’s what’s been going on; he hits himself and he just can’t get through it,” Bongiorno said. “We made a pretty drastic change to him, because the way we looked at it is, what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working and for something to change you had to make a change. So that’s what he did.”

Bongiorno calls racing in the Hambo at his age an “unbelievable opportunity” and while he isn’t making any grand predictions, he feels Make Or Miss has the potential to surprise some people.

“I know he’s a longshot going into the race, but I don’t look at this horse that way,” he said. “I look at this horse as if things do click, miracles can happen with him; because he is fast enough. To me he’s about as fast as any of them, if not faster. He’s a very, very fast horse, it’s just a matter of getting his gait down.

“From what I saw (Wednesday), I’ve watched this horse train all year this year and he’s not looked anything like he looked today. He looked absolutely unbelievable. Ronnie made a few equipment adjustments as well as the shoeing, and he just looked like a different horse on the racetrack. So I’m hoping that things click just like they did last year in the Valley Victory.”

Whether they do or not, it will be an afternoon to remember for Bongiorno. He is not intimidated by a big race at the Big M -- at which he is fourth in the driving standings this year -- after driving longshot Manhattan Beach to a fourth-place finish in the Meadowlands Pace.

“It was cool,” Bongiorno said. “You’re thinking ‘Wow at 22 years old I’m driving in the Meadowlands Pace.’ I drove the race like I would drive any other race and that’s what I intend on doing at the Hambletonian also.

“It’s another race, it’s another big race, and you do gain experience as you drive in these bigger races. A lot of money’s on the line; some people drive different. I just have to do my thing, drive it like another race. Win, lose or draw, it’s just a great experience to be a part of this race.”

And with the schedule he keeps, Bongiorno won’t really be thinking about it until the day it arrives.

The CBS Sports Network will have a 90-minute live broadcast including the $1 million Hambletonian final, the $225,550 U.S. Pacing Championship, and the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks beginning at 4:00 p.m. The first post for Hambletonian Day at The Meadowlands is noon.

First $70,000 Hambletonian elim - Race 8 - Post Time: 2:58 p.m.
Post - Horse - Driver - Trainer - Odds
1. Bar Hopping – Tim Tetrick – Jimmy Takter – 9/5
2. Lagerfeld – Yannick Gingras – Jimmy Takter – 12/1
3. Make Or Miss – Joe Bongiorno – Ron Burke – 20/1
4. Milligans School – Andy Miller – Julie Miller – 10/1
5. Brooklyn Hill – David Miller – Jonas Czernyson – 3/1
6. Mavens Way – John Campbell – Ake Svanstedt – 6/1
7. Tight Lines – Jeff Gregory – Jeff Gregory – 25/1
8. Iron Mine Bucky – George Dennis – Greg Haverstick – 15/1
9. Reigning Moni – David Miller – Jimmy Takter – 4/1

Second $70,000 Hambletonian elim - Race 9 - Post Time: 3:25 p.m.
Post - Horse - Driver - Trainer - Odds
1. Jimmy William – Tim Tetrick – Jimmy Takter – 20/1
2. The Royal Harry – Ake Svanstedt – Ake Svanstedt – 20/1
3. Sutton – Andy Miller – Julie Miller – 6/1
4. Marion Marauder – Scott Zeron – Paula Wellwood – 3/1
5. Southwind Frank – Yannick Gingras – Ron Burke – 4/5
6. Hollywood Highway – John Campbell – Staffan Lind – 30/1
7. Dominion Beach – Bjorn Goop – Nancy Johansson – 30/1
8. Love Matters – Brett Miller – Jimmy Takter – 12/1
9. Waitlifter K – David Miller – Andrew Harris – 10/1

This story courtesy of Harness Racing Communications, a division of the U.S. Trotting Association. For more information, visit www.ustrotting.com.


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