The bug bit him late.
But once it transmitted through his blood, there was really no cure for George Napolitano Jr.
He was hooked on harness racing for life.
“I think I realized that after, probably about the fifth time during my qualifying drives,” Napolitano was saying. “This is probably something I want to do for the rest of my life.”
He’s been doing it pretty well for awhile now.
Napolitano was once again the leading driver in wins at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs last season, rolling up 305 victories. That was the ninth time Napolitano boasted the season’s most victories at Pocono Downs, where he set the track record for victories with 347 in 2004.
Napolitano won 748 races to lead all harness drivers in the country in 2010, and his 551 total wins were the seventh-most in the country last year. He has won over 6,000 races during his 23-year career, has earned over $50 million and the Harrah’s Philadelphia race track gave away a Napolitano bobblehead a couple of years ago.
Yet, it’s the charge he gets from finishing first that keeps driving the 47-year-old Napolitano.
“It’s more the feeling,” Napolitano said. “Everybody likes the money. But for me, it’s more the feeling of winning.”
It hasn’t come without a price for Napolitano.
After sweeping the driver-trainer awards at Pocono Downs for two straight years in the early 2000s, Napolitano was banned from the track in 2007 after one of the horses he trained tested positive for TC02 — an illegal substance in horse racing circles.
But he was reinstated, and has been a regular in the track’s winners circle ever since.
“There are a lot of problems and challenges in this business,” Napolitano said. “It’s very challenging, but the reward is very high. There’s nothing like racing a horse.
“The adrenaline, I can’t even explain.”
It’s a rush that took him out of the stables where those around him worked as trainers and sent Napolitano onto the track.
“It was a family thing — my grandfather and dad both did it,” said Napolitano, whose brother Anthony Napolitano also drives regularly at Pocono Downs. “God’s given me a great talent. I took it and ran with it. I started late — I was 23, a lot later than a lot of great drivers.
“But unlike in football or boxing, you get to do it race to race. You don’t have to wait a year or two, like in boxing, or a week, like in football. In this, we go right into the next race.”
He races at four major harness tracks on the East Coast each year, but counts Pocono Downs as his favorite.
“Been coming here for years. We’ve got a lot of great trainers and great drivers here,” Napolitano said. “And even if they’re not here, Pocono Downs is always going to make for great racing, because of their surface. They’re giving away great purses.
“It’s probably the best track in the world.”
And once again, the reigning top driver at the place wants to remain the best at Pocono Downs.
“It means a lot, it’s always fun to be number one,” Napolitano said. “You have to have great drivers push you to run a great race. My plans are to be number one again, but most of all, to stay healthy.”