Riches. Rags. Redemption: How the high stakes world of harness racing took one of its best on ride of his life

George Napolitano assumes his rightful throne.

George Napolitano assumes his rightful throne.

That throne is a series of uncomfortable bucket seats along a back wall of the paddock by the first gate at the Harrah’s Philadelphia racing track in Chester. Taking a long pull of a giant vape pen, Napolitano exhales a plume of smoke so thick his weathered face completely disappears. When it returns to focus, his head is buried in a racing program, checking once more where he’ll be placed – and on what horse – in just 18 minutes time.

Unless you’re familiar with the high stakes sport of harness racing, you’d never know that sitting alone in that corner is one of the winningest drivers in the history of the sport. A world champion, who at his peak pocketed over $8 million in his first half of his career.

He’s the driver other drivers emulate.

He’s the name on the program that even if he’s riding a long shot, you bet on it. Not because it’ll automatically win, but because with Napolitano on that horse, you’ve got a fighting chance.

Bettors know it, and other drivers especially know it. It’s one of the reasons Napolitano is respected, even if he isn’t always well liked. See, in the high prized world of harness racing, everyone is an independent contractor of sorts. In each race, a hefty 5 percent split of a five- or six-figure purse for drivers who finish 1-2-3 serves as supreme motivation.

Even on this day as he waits patiently, Napolitano has a chance to clean up at Harrah’s as trainers have him on a horse in every race.

“He’s the guy,” said Harrah’s racing official Joe Auger. “He’s one of the best drivers in the world and he knows how to be among the top in almost every race. That’s why his name in a [racing program] gets anyone who knows anything about harness excited. We’re lucky to have a guy like that racing here.”

Even now, Napolitano is atop the leaderboard among drivers at Harrah’s for most starts, wins and purses this season, chasing a 5 percent split of nearly $2.7 million at the time we met for this story.

It’s a sport that has given Napolitano so much.

But it’s also one that robbed him of his identity. An identity that nearly killed him.

‘God, if you’re real, I could really use you right now’

In the mid-2000s, Pompano Park and Pocono Downs were playgrounds for Napolitano. In 2006, he led all drivers at the latter with 312 wins and over $1.7 million in prize monies. In one of the best years of his life professionally, Napolitano was also racing champion at Pompano both as a trainer and driver. 

It wouldn’t be a cliche to at all to call it “riding high,” because that’s what Napolitano was doing – both on and off the track. But it would catch up with him. Both he and the horses he’d train would routinely test positive for banned substances, him for illegal drugs and his horses for enhancers.

It all came to a head the morning of May 7, 2007.  Dale Rapson, vice president of racing operations for Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, announced the driver, then known as “Georgie Nap,” was banned indefinitely from racing at Pocono on the heels of another suspension from the state racing board.

A decision that ultimately blackballed him from the sport for more than a year.

“I was suspended for so long, I had no choice but to turn my life around,” Napolitano recalled. “They took everything from me. I was lost man, I was absolutely lost. When they took [my license] from me, I was worthless. My wife left me and I was living in my car. I started using cocaine a lot harder, and I was on drugs that I couldn’t get off of. I was living on the streets, it was without question a really scary point in my life.”

People in the sport could see Napolitano’s path was one that wasn’t going to end well.

Before his redemption and ascension back into harness racing, the “old George” was admittedly, “a piece of shit.” He’d do whatever he had to do to win, and if another driver or trainer got in his way, watch out.

“Oh yeah, I’ve clocked guys,” Napolitano said. “I’m probably one of the only drivers in this sport that has done suspension time for punching someone. That was the old George, and when I first started out I had this ego and a real bad temper. I was cocky, wasn’t very humble and if someone got in my way I’d crack the shit out of them.”

It was his drug-induced me first, fuck you mentality that made Napolitano a pariah on many facets. It found his family distancing themselves early on despite his success, including his own kid brother, Anthony, who got into the family business of racing 15 years ago and is a top driver in his own right. Anthony will say he was always rooting for his brother to get his life together – but that it had to be from a distance.

“We had to let Georgie figure his life out,” said Anthony, who explained the separation as he parked himself right next next to his brother in a bucket seat just before the third race at Harrah’s. “We are in a sport that when someone falls it’s natural to talk badly about each other, but in the end, who is the best will show up time and time again. My brother put himself through the ringer, but there was no one happier for him than me to see him get his life together and come back and be a rising star for the last 10 years at the two toughest tracks in the country. He’s fought his way back.”

It was only after his wife left and on a day in which Napolitano described as a “drug-fueled rampage,” he remembered what a friend told him.

“I saw a friend who had gotten out of prison; he looked at me and said, ‘dude, you gotta turn to Jesus.’ I thought he was crazy,” said Napolitano. “One day I went on a rampage with the drugs and drinking and was out of control. I remembered what he said and I got down on the ground and said, ‘God, if you’re real, I could really use you, right now.’ I mean you have to remember man, that before all of this, I was the winningest driver and a champion and all of a sudden it was just gone.”

Napolitano went to rehab, but quickly left. Then he went back and stayed longer – and left. But each time, he learned something that kept him coming back. He was changing. A final stint in rehab saw the cocaine-fueled rage sessions cease. His drinking slowed. Family started coming back into the fold. His wife returned.

And in that, Napolitano found a greater purpose.

“I learned in that time that, like horses, life is a grind,” Napolitano said.  “If you let it get to you, if you aren’t mentally and physically sharp, it’ll eat you up and spit you right out.”

‘Everything is calculated now. Measured.’

Routine arguably has saved George Napolitano’s life.

He does the same thing most days when he wakes up inside his West Chester home. He gets on his computer, checks the United States Trotting Association website to see where he’s placed or if there are any changes to his draws. Then it’s a series of calisthenics, stretches and a protein shake before he heads out the door to Harrah’s or a number of other area tracks.

Since his license has been fully restored, Napolitano has been on the circuit hard. Every day doesn’t find him at Harrah’s, as he could be at any track on any given day, even Pocono Downs, where his ban has been lifted and he’s returned as one of the top drivers.

You think George Napolitano has confidence? You bet he does…Talent isn’t always enough. If you don’t think you’re great, you can’t be great.”

– Bob Pandolfo, columnist and handicapper for DRF Bets wrote in a May 2016 story on the Napolitano brothers.

However, he’ll tell you right away that with his support system minutes away, Harrah’s is home. Today, his faith and his family take precedent. He checks in with his wife, Kathy, who in spite of her decision to leave her husband at a time he arguably needed her most, Napolitano will attest that he couldn’t have gotten himself back without her tough love and support. He spends quality time with his son George, Jr. and routinely talks to his favorite trainers in the business in Gilbert Garcia and Chris Oaks.

Monotony? Sure. But to stay regimented, it’s necessary.

“I don’t live like that anymore and I don’t put myself in situations where I could be tempted to live like that,” said Napolitano. “I put Jesus first. I read my Bible, I look out for my family and I take things slowly. Everything is calculated now. Measured. Now it’s my faith, my family and my job. Where before, it was always my job.”

The grind of horse racing and the toll it took on Napolitano’s life can be read across his face at first glance. But it’s something about the family business that keeps him coming back. Money, sure. That’s first and foremost, the Napolitano brothers aren’t hiding that. But there’s something more for George that is going to take a while for him to ever step away from.

“The high I used to get doing drugs? I get that once the gate opens and I’m on a horse,” said Napolitano with a smile beamed across his weathered face. “Especially a great horse. When you get a good horse and you’re going down the stretch, you feel like you’re in a Ferrari, and you’re on cruise. They are beautiful animals and great horses make for great drivers. There’s a lot great drivers here that never get the opportunity to drive a great horse.”

And when it comes to one day calling it quits?

“I’m gonna let Jesus tell me when it’s time to go,” he adds. “I’m not giving it up yet. I was a true champion for a long time and I just want to feel that again. Right now, I’m enjoying life, and I know that sooner or later the torch has to be handed over, but it ain’t gonna be in the next couple of years. I’m still here to keep people on their toes.”

Anthony pivots in his seat to look at his brother.

“[George] can’t leave yet, he’s my motivation,” Anthony said. “He’s got my back and I have his. It’s nice because we share the same qualities as far as appreciating the money that we make in this business…people call it a shadow, but I’m happy to be in that shadow. My brother fought his way back and he’s here now. I’m not No. 1, but at my track he’s my No. 1 and I’m No. 2 and I’m happy with that.”

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    Kerith Gabriel is the editor-in-chief at Philadelphia Weekly but somehow hasn’t figured out that means he doesn’t have to write nearly as much. Journalism has been in his blood since his beginnings as a sports writer over a decade ago for the Philadelphia Daily News.