After a career-best 2019 that included winning his first Breeders Crown trophy, driver Joe Bongiorno hopes to add to his success in the championship event at Harrah’s Hoosier Park this year. And he will have more opportunities than ever to try to accomplish that goal.
The 27-year-old Bongiorno heads to this weekend’s eliminations with eight drives, including with Little Brown Jug winner Captain Barbossa. Prior to this year, the most drives he ever had in a Breeders Crown was five, in his debut year in 2016 at The Meadowlands. He has driven a total of nine horses in the event, elims and finals combined.
Bongiorno won his first Breeders Crown last year in the Open Pace with American History, trained by Tony Alagna, at Woodbine Mohawk Park and finished his season with a career-best $5.99 million in purses.
“It was unbelievable,” Bongiorno said. “To win a Breeders Crown at the age of 26 is something special. It’s something special at any time in your life, but to win it that early in my career, I’m just very thankful.
“To have these opportunities this early in my career is not something I expected. I’m very grateful. This weekend with the Breeders Crown is a big opportunity and now I just have to try to make the most of it.”
Bongiorno drives in three Breeders Crown eliminations Saturday, with three-year-old male pacers Captain Barbossa and Save Me A Dance, and three-year-old male trotter Play Trix On Me.
Little Brown Jug winner Captain Barbossa
Captain Barbossa, who won the Little Brown Jug a month ago the day after Bongiorno’s 27th birthday, is 4-1 on the morning line in his elim, which includes the sport’s No. 1-ranked horse, Tall Dark Stranger, who is the 3-5 favourite.
In his most recent start, Oct. 4 in a division of the Bluegrass Stakes at Lexington’s Red Mile, the Tony Alagna-trained Captain Barbossa finished second by a half-length to Tall Dark Stranger. He has one win in 14 races this season but has been no worse than second in his last five starts.
“The horse raced unreal in the Little Brown Jug,” Bongiorno said. “Then he came back in (1):48.3 at Lexington. He’s definitely going to be fit. It’s going to be 21 days from his last start, but Tony always has his horses ready to go.
“This year being able to win the Jug for Tony, I can’t thank him and his owners, his whole team, [enough] for the opportunities they’ve given me.”
Save Me A Dance, trained by Andrew Harris, is 10-1 in his elimination. It will be Bongiorno’s first drive behind the colt, who spent most of the season on the New York circuit before heading to Red Mile for the recent Grand Circuit meet. He was third in a division of the Bluegrass and fourth in a division of the Tattersalls Pace.
“He’s been pacing hard to the wire in some big miles,” Bongiorno said. “I think he’s a nice colt. He just needs a little bit of luck.”
Play Trix On Me is 12-1 in his elimination, where he starts from post nine. Play Trix On Me, trained by Linda Toscano, is a two-time New Jersey Sire Stakes champion and finished second in the Canadian Trotting Classic in September.
Bongiorno drove the colt for the first time Oct. 15 at Hoosier Park and won in 1:54.1 on a “good” track.
“He was very good,” Bongiorno said. “He had been off for three weeks and won as easily as a horse can do it. I look forward to racing him. The nine hole is not ideal, but it doesn’t bother me. The horse has gate speed, and he can put himself in the race. I think he can go with them. If things work out, I think he has just as good a shot as anyone in that division.
“He got a good run over Hoosier. Even though it’s a big track, it’s tighter turns than you would think, and the stretch is so long. It was good to see how he felt as far as being straight and shod properly for that track.”
In addition to his Breeders Crown drives Saturday, Bongiorno has five on Friday. Following are his thoughts on those eliminations.
Exploit, a two-year-old male pacer trained by Alagna, who is 12-1 in his elim. He counts the Metro Pace among three wins this year.
“I’ve never raced him but, obviously, I’ve paid attention to what he’s done,” Bongiorno said. “He can do it either way, from up close or behind. He’s got a quick turn of foot. I’m really looking forward to driving him. He’s a really nice horse.”
Nashville Elgenna, a two-year-old female pacer trained by Alagna and the first foal out of four-time Dan Patch Award winner Anndrovette. She is 2-for-2 this year and 9-2 in her elim. Bongiorno has driven her once.
“I think that’s a horse on the upswing and the sky is the limit,” Bongiorno said. “She’s been super impressive in her two lifetime starts and we really don’t know what her bottom is. I expect her to keep getting better. She hasn’t had to race against these top fillies yet, but I think she can hold her own. I was super impressed with her.”
Lady Lou, a three-year-old female pacer trained by Alagna, who is 15-1 in her elim. She was second in the Fan Hanover Stakes and Shady Daisy.
“I’ve never raced her,” Bongiorno said. “There are a lot of really nice horses in that division. If she can put herself in the race, she’s going to have a chance. She’s been on the wire with some good horses before, so hopefully she can do it again.”
Hello I Love You, a two-year-old female trotter trained by Alagna, who is 5-1 in her elim. She has two wins, including a division of the Bluegrass, and was second in a division of the International Stallion Stakes.
“She is a really, really nice filly,” Bongiorno said. “I’ve liked her since the first time I drove her; I thought she would win some big races this year. The first week of Lexington she was really good, as sharp as sharp could be. The second week, I came late first over with her. (Insta Glam) drifted out and allowed (Flawless Country) up the inside. If she doesn’t get that clear run up the inside, I win the second week of Lexington with her too.
“She was very impressive both weeks. I think if she’s on her ‘A’ game both weeks, she’s got as good a shot as anybody in that division.”
Ms Savannah Belle, a three-year-old female trotter trained by Per Engblom, who is 9-2 in her elimination. She was a Breeders Crown elimination winner in 2019 (seventh in the final). Bongiorno drove her for the first time Oct. 11 in the Kentucky Filly Futurity, finishing fifth over a “good” Red Mile surface.
“I had to go to the inside in the stretch and the track was deep there, more so than on the outside,” Bongiorno said. “She raced even better than the line looks. She was very good, but I know that she’s got more than that. She’s handy, that’s what I like about her. I think she’s going to be really good.”
Racing begins at 6:30 p.m. (EDT) Friday and Saturday at Harrah’s Hoosier Park. Links to program pages for the elimination cards are available below.