Joe Bongiorno says he’s being punished by Gural for appealing NJRC ruling

The driver said his 20-day ban from racing at the Meadowlands, Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs was handed down after he appealed the New Jersey Commission’s 20-day suspension and $5,000 fine for his drive in a race that ended in an accident that led to Incredible Shark being euthanized.

by Dave Briggs

Despite receiving a stay of a 20-day suspension and $5,000 fine by the New Jersey Racing Commission (NJRC) while he waits for his appeal to be heard, driver Joe Bongiorno has been handed a 20-day ban from racing at the three tracks owned by Jeff Gural — The Meadowlands, Tioga and Vernon Downs.

The suspension began Friday (June 27).

“It’s been appealed at the Commission level and I was granted a stay,” Bongiorno said Saturday evening. “In the hearing the (NJRC) judges’ finding was that I did not cause the accident. To me, this action was taken (by the Gural tracks) because I placed an appeal. That’s a constitutional right to be able to appeal a decision.

“I raced (at the Meadowlands) the three weekends prior to this racetrack rule and if the case was that they believed I was dangerous then I wouldn’t have been able to race those three weekends prior. That would be my thinking.”

The NJRC initially ruled that while driving Pat Stanley N in the 7th race on May 29, 2021, Bongiorno failed to keep the lines reasonably taut during the race.

“Mr. Bongiorno displayed exaggerated movement with the whip, using more than wrist action and raising his whipping arm to a level above shoulder height; Mr. Bongiorno continued to use the whip to urge his horse after the horse was no longer responding,” the ruling said. “The culmination of these actions, each of which is a violation of N.J.A.C. 13:71-20.15, placed Mr. Bongiorno in a position of being unable to respond when the horse Pat Stanley N stumbled and fell, unseating Mr. Bongirono as well as two other drivers.”

In a press release, the Meadowlands, Tioga and Vernon said its suspension of Bongiorno was “due to track management’s observation of Mr. Bongiorno’s driving over a lengthy period of time. Most recently, in the 7th race on Saturday, May 29, 2021, Mr. Bongiorno was driving the horse Pat Stanley N when that horse fell while in contention in the very late stages of the race, resulting in a three horse accident where one of the horses (Incredible Shark) suffered a catastrophic injury (and was subsequently euthanized). Fortunately, the other two horses and all three drivers were able to walk away with minor injuries.

“Careful study of the accident from a number of angles supports the opinion that Mr. Bongiorno has the style of driving the horse with very loose lines, and the belief that he was not in a position to react quickly enough to support the horse when he began to fall.”

Bongiorno repeatedly emphasized that judges said he did not cause the accident.

“Obviously, it’s a horrible situation that the horse fell, but that’s the risk that comes with going on the racetrack. It’s not the first time a horse fell,” he said.

“I’ve driven this way all my life. Nothing has changed… and I was never called dangerous prior to this ever… Since the new whipping rule (in New Jersey), which has probably been in place for six, eight months, I have not been fined with that whipping rule and they haven’t said a word about my style since the new whipping rule has been intact.”

In the press release, Gural was quoted as saying, “Our concern for the safety of our drivers, including Joe, and the horses is paramount. It is our hope that Joe will learn from this near tragedy as he is a terrific up and coming young driver who should have a good future.”

The exclusion from the Gural tracks will end on Wednesday, July 14, 2021, and Bongiorno can be listed as the driver for the draw for races scheduled for July 16 and 17.

– with files from the NJRC and Meadowlands media relations