By Ken Weingartner, USTA Media
Tony Verruso loves to fly, but sometimes he likes to take off for a quick drive.
Verruso, who for the past dozen years has worked as a flight attendant for JetBlue, enjoys spending his free time competing in harness racing as an amateur driver. In 2021, Verruso had his best season to date, winning 23 of 84 races, and was named the sport’s Amateur Driver of the Year by the U.S. Harness Writers Association.
Next week, Verruso will travel to Italy to represent the U.S. in the World Championship for amateur drivers. Drivers from 12 countries will compete at tracks in Rome, Turin, and Florence over the course of four days beginning on Sept. 21.
It will be Verruso’s first appearance in the World Championship and the lifelong resident of Queens, N.Y., will try to become the first American to win the event. Hannah Miller posted the best U.S. finish in 2016, missing the title by a point.
“I’ve always thought it would be cool to represent the United States, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity,” the 59-year-old Verruso said. “It’s kind of hard to believe that a kid from Queens who never touched a horse until he was 35 could end up in this position, and I’m very grateful for all the help and support I’ve had over the years.
“It’s great that I have something I really enjoy doing. I look forward to this every week. It’s a big deal.”
Verruso, who grew up going to the races at New York City-area tracks, has been driving since 1999 and has won 124 times. As an amateur, he receives no financial compensation for his driving. Most amateur drivers donate their percentage of any purse money earned by their horses to charity.
“When I first started, I had little to no experience at all except for watching races,” Verruso said. “I watched my whole life. So, it was a matter of getting the experience of doing to match what I knew from watching. It took a while, but things started to fall into place.”
Verruso, who has won 19 races this year, hopes things fall into place next week in Italy. He has raced in Italy previously, in “friendly” competitions but this will be a new experience.
“I was watching replays recently from the track in Rome, just to see what it looks like,” Verruso said. “European racing is different; I’m not too well versed in the way they race. The shortest way around (the track) is on the inside, and that’s the way I race a lot, staying on the inside. I’m not sure if that works there, but I’m going to do my best.”
The other drivers competing in this year’s World Championship include defending champ Piet Van Pollaert of Belgium and Dave Drew of Canada. The remaining countries being represented are Argentina, Austria, Finland, Germany, Italy, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, and the Netherlands.
In addition to the World Championship, there will be a series of Centennial Races to celebrate the 100th year of the Italian Amateur Drivers Association. Larry Ferrari will represent the U.S. in those events, facing drivers from six other countries. Ferrari, a 57-year-old resident of Ohio, started driving in the mid-1980s and has won 369 races lifetime.