Day At The Track

Napoli chasing first harness racing win at Yonkers

03:59 AM 20 Jul 2019 NZST
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Mike Napoli, harness racing
Mike Napoli

YONKERS, N.Y. – Mike Napoli hit 267 home runs during his Major League Baseball (MLB) career, has 28 victories as a Thoroughbred racehorse owner, and now the 37-year-old is chasing his first win as a harness racing owner in the claiming ranks at Yonkers Raceway.

A first baseman and catcher during a 12-year MLB run that included stints playing for the Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox, and Cleveland Indians, Napoli is also a lifelong horse racing fan. Growing up in South Florida, Napoli frequently attended the races at Calder Race Course with his grandfather as he chased his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player. 

Napoli was drafted in 2000 at age 19 and played in the minor leagues until 2005.

Napoli made his MLB debut in 2006 and hit a homerun in his first MLB at-bat. Napoli was behind the plate for the post season in 2011 with the Rangers, in 2013 for the Red Sox, and in 2016 for the Indians. 

When Napoli retired from baseball in December 2018, he sought action of a different kind. Through mutual friends, Napoli met a racing manager at Gulfstream Park during the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Napoli realized for the amount he was wagering on the races, he could get involved as an owner. The pair hit it off and exchanged numbers. 

Napoli claimed his first Thoroughbred in January 2019. One quickly grew to seven and seven grew to 12. Within four months, the stable stood at 25-strong. Year-to-date, Napoli’s runners have won 28 races from 65 starts and placed another 19 times, good for $553,170. Napoli’s horses compete mainly in Florida, New Jersey, and New York. 

Napoli took his first owner’s title at the Gulfstream Park meet that concluded June 30, topping the list with 16 victories. He also won his first stakes race when Heading Home took the $75,000 Jersey Girl Handicap at Monmouth Park July 7. 

An avid racing fan and bettor, Napoli and his racing manager were enjoying an evening watching harness racing at the Meadowlands and Yonkers via simulcast. Whether fueled by the need for more action, the desire to try something new, or just too many beers, Napoli and his manager decided to dive into the harness game.

New to the harness business, Napoli’s racing manager received Jenn Bongiorno’s number from a friend. He saw the trainer’s high win percentage and Italian heritage and was sold. Bongiorno recommended claiming the roan 10-year-old pacer Gypsy Leather and Napoli, a particular fan of gray horses, and his manager concurred.

Knowing Yonkers was the place they wanted to be due to the good drivers, trainers, and purses, Napoli was in the box June 14. He claimed the 42-time winner from Brittany Robertson for $20,000.  

Gypsy Leather debuted for Bongiorno and Napoli June 21, finishing second for a $25,000 tag after a pocket-sitting trip. He was the runner up again July 5 after setting the pace in a $25,000 claiming handicap and last out July 12, closed from 12 lengths behind to finish second by a nose from post eight.

Napoli and his manager immediately noticed the primary difference between owning a Thoroughbred and a Standardbred is the timing between races. They often wait a month between starts at the flat track, but get action every week at the harness track. Although their business and expertise are anchored in the Thoroughbred game, Napoli’s racing manager conceded the economics of harness ownership appear to make more sense.

Gypsy Leather will be back in action Friday night (July 19) at Yonkers. He will start from post four in a $25,000 claiming handicap and is the 8-5 morning line favorite in the six-horse field. Should Napoli get his first win as a harness owner in this spot, his racing manager, who wished to remain anonymous, predicts the star will be celebrating from South Florida.

“I would say he’ll probably jump through the TV. He gets real excited,” he said. “We’ve had discussions about hitting a home run or about winning a race. He says it’s close to being the same. The racing, he gets butterflies in his stomach, he gets real excited and nervous. We discussed hitting a home run with 50,000 people in the stands and millions watching on TV. He says that was his job, it wasn’t really the same thing. Even though we’re a claiming operation right now, to us, you get that ‘W’ and it’s still a great feeling to win.”

With continued success, Napoli could expand his harness stable. He is looking forward to visiting Bongiorno’s New Jersey stable, where he will doubtlessly enjoy another perk of harness racing: jogging his own horse. If his brief history as a Thoroughbred owner is any indication, Napoli could be at the top of the harness owners’ leaderboard in no time.

Yonkers Raceway features live harness racing Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. First post time is 6:50 p.m.

For entries to the races, click here.

By Brandon Valvo for the SOA of NY

 

 

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