By Ken Weingartner, USTA Media — Charlie Longo resides in New York but for the past several days has been living on Cloud Nine. Winning a couple races as an amateur driver can have that effect on a person. Especially when the person never touched a horse until the age of 50.
A native of the Bronx, Longo grew up going to the races at Roosevelt and Yonkers with his father, Carlo. He dreamed of participating in the sport someday, particularly as a driver, but went decades without ever acting upon his aspirations.
That changed 10 years ago when Longo attended the U.S. Trotting Association’s Driving School in Goshen, N.Y., and began to realize it might not be too late to chase the dream. Soon after completing the three-day program, he started spending mornings before work at the stable of trainer Dennis Laterza. Over time, he went from jogging horses to training to qualifying to racing on the New York fairs circuit.
At the end of last year, Longo began to race at pari-mutuel tracks in amateur driver events. This past weekend, the 60-year-old New Yorker traveled to Canada, where he recorded not only the first, but second, amateur victories of his career by capturing races at Flamboro Downs and Woodbine Mohawk Park.
“I’m really flying high, feeling good,” Longo said Wednesday. “I’m just thrilled with the way everything has worked out for me over the last 10 years. It’s amazing how things work out sometimes in life. It’s been a wild ride. Did I ever anticipate getting here? No. A miracle happened. I’m just on Cloud Nine.”
Longo started going to the harness races around the age of 12. It was, in his own words, “love at first sight.”
“It was something special for me to watch the races,” Longo said. “I became a big fan of the drivers; it was almost like going to a baseball game for me. I was so into the sport and the history of the sport.
“I thought maybe I could be an amateur driver one day. It’s something I always wanted to do as a kid, but I never pursued it. I always felt I missed out on an opportunity and wished I had done it. I guess I just never thought it was possible having no experience, no family in the business. Honestly, I had never been near a horse. I never went near a horse until the Driving School.
“The timing of the Driving School was great. It was my 50th birthday coming up and my wife gave it to me for my birthday present. I was out there for three days and had an amazing time. When I first got involved, I didn’t know where it was going to take me. A lot of drivers start out as teenagers, and here I was trying to do it at 50. And I didn’t drive in my first race until I was 57.”
Longo got his first win in 2020 at the Hemlock Fair and added another in 2021 at Afton. His career in the amateur races got off to a rocky start last fall, getting parked out in his debut and having his horse go off stride in three of the next four prior to heading to Canada and winning with Southwind Maritime at Flamboro on Sunday and Treasured Tee at Mohawk on Monday.
“My confidence was really shaken heading to Canada,” Longo said. “I told myself I needed to relax and make something happen. But it wasn’t me. I had good horses. I had the favorite in one and the third choice in the other, and I had favorable post positions. Fortunately, I made the most of it.
“I’m finding now I’m getting to the point where I’m starting to believe in myself. I know what I have to do, it’s just a matter of getting the experience and executing. And, of course, you’ve got to be lucky.”
Winning at Mohawk on Memorial Day was extra meaningful to Longo.
“I kind of dedicated it to my dad, who was a Marine veteran who had passed away three years ago,” Longo said. “I remember being on the backside before I turned to the gate and my father came into my mind. I looked up at the sky, and I got a little choked up, and said, ‘This one is for you dad.’ When I won, it blew my mind. It was like he was looking down on me. He would have been so proud.”
Longo, who is the assistant director of public safety at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y., found out Wednesday he was approved to drive in amateur races at The Meadowlands, adding to his excitement this week.
“Pinch me, I’m dreaming,” he said. “Wow. I can race at the mecca of harness racing. I don’t know when it will happen, it might be a week, it might be a month. I’m 60 years old and I’ve waited a lifetime for this and when the time comes it comes. I’m going to be ready. I’m going to be excited. I just hope to do well and reward the owners and trainers that give me that opportunity whenever it comes.”
In addition to driving, Longo co-founded Winners Circle Racing, a fractional ownership group, in 2015 with Matt Zuccarello, another USTA Driving School alum and amateur driver. Longo also was recently elected to the Board of Directors of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York.
“A lot of amazing things are happening for me in harness racing,” Longo said.
The stay on Cloud Nine might be extended indefinitely.
photo by New Image Media