During his junior year at Colts Neck (N.J.) High School, Bongiorno was named the National Amateur Driver of the Year by the U.S. Harness Writers Association.
As a high school senior, he was named winner of the 2011 Rising Star Award from the Monticello-Goshen chapter of USHWA.
This season, Bongiorno has more than lived up to the hype.
“It’s been a good year so far; it’s been unbelievable,” said the likable 19-year-old. “This is nothing I could ever imagine coming into this year.”
|Joe Bongiorno has driven the winners of more than $1.04 million in 2012.|
Racing primarily at Saratoga Casino and Raceway, Bongiorno is No. 8 in the track standings with 104 wins. He is third in winning percentage (18.4) among drivers with at least 120 starts at the track, trailing only Billy Dobson, Saratoga’s leading driver, and Hall of Famer Wally Hennessey.
For the season, Joe has 145 wins and $1.04 million and is coming off a career-best five victories at Saratoga on Saturday. It also was a special weekend as Bongiorno cracked the $1 million mark on Friday.
Bongiorno, who turned 19 in late September, fell just a little more than two months shy of joining Doug McNair as the only driver to post a million-dollar season prior to the age of 19.
“It meant a lot to get to the million-dollar mark for the year,” Bongiorno said. “It was also a big accomplishment to get 100 wins in a year; I never expected that to happen. Now I’m closing in on 150 for the year.”
Joe credits much of his success to Don’t Blame Her, a 9-year-old pacing mare who has provided numerous highlights, winning 12 times this year, predominately in the opens, and earning $184,835.
“I couldn’t have asked to drive a better horse than to be able to drive Don’t Blame Her,” Bongiorno said. “Week in and week out driving her, I won seven or eight up at Saratoga, $31,000 (purse race) in Yonkers. She’s unbelievable. But I actually got to drive a couple of nice horses.”
|Dave Oxford photo|
|Joe Bongiorno has had a lot of success in 2012 with the pacing mare Don't Blame Her, a winner of $184,835.|
At the rate Joe is going, driving good horses shouldn’t be a problem as he has stamped himself as one of the nation’s top young talents.
Bongiorno is the grandson of Harold “Sonny” Dancer, who won the Monticello driving title in 1961. His parents, Robert and Barbara, still own horses and provide their son with them. Robert is a former trainer.
Although he has been around the sport all his life, Joe never saw a future in it as a kid.
Until he met trainer/owner Buzzy Sholty at his Magical Acres stable in Chesterfield, N.J.
“I’d always been involved, but I was never a real part of it,” Bongiorno said. “When I was 14 my dad owned a horse with Buzzy Sholty and Buzzy asked if I wanted to come out and jog the horses.”
And a magical moment occurred at Magical Acres.
“Right when I got out there I felt comfortable doing it,” Joe said. “I just felt it and knew I wanted to drive from then on.
“At first, Buzz and I went out jogging and training. I put horses away, learned how to shoe horses. I learned everything. He was my mentor on everything. He taught me everything I needed to know.
“The first horse I qualified with was named Saratoga John. Buzz was there when I bought that horse.”
In his first season of competitive driving, Bongiorno won six pari-mutuel races in 14 starts, along with two seconds and three thirds. Joe went to Saratoga in the summer of 2010 to work with Mark and Melissa Beckwith and immediately knew that’s where he wanted to drive.
“I drove for them, put away horses and pretty much did everything up here,” he said. “I loved it; it’s a great place to be in the summer. There’s good racing, all the drivers are cool.
“I decided that following summer when I had a license to drive I’d move up here and give it a shot. The day after high school ended, I headed up to Saratoga. All my horses were up here already. I had a good first weekend, got a win, and it went from there.”
Joe got started as a fulltime driver in September 2011 and “had a good couple of months ending out that year.” He won 29 of 245 starts over the final four months of the season.
As he entered this year, Bongiorno had no grand illusions to do what he has done.
“It was more like ‘Let’s just see how it goes,’” he said. “I had a good amateur career and was hoping it could continue as a professional.
“Coming into this year I was hoping to have a few wins. I knew I’d be coming to Saratoga right when school ended. I expected to do average.
“I knew it was a pretty tough colony up here; I didn’t expect to pick up as much work as I did. But right off the bat, the horses were racing good. It made it easy for me to drive and from there I ended up picking up more work and it worked out well.”
Bongiorno plans to return to New Jersey later this month and race at Freehold, the Meadowlands and Yonkers.
Probably the biggest obstacle Bongiorno faced was the pressure of expectations. After winning two prestigious awards as an amateur, he had to show he could do it when it counted.
“It gives you a lot of confidence,” Joe said of winning the awards. “But you also have to kind of live up to what they’re hoping you are.”
So far, Joe Bongiorno is fulfilling those hopes. . .and then some.