Day At The Track

Young Cushing enjoying the Midwest

08:16 AM 02 Mar 2021 NZDT
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Mitch Cushing, harness racing
Mitch Cushing

Trenton, NJ — Thus far, Mitch Cushing’s harness racing driving career has been shaped by singular moments that he never saw coming. One was quite painful, the other quite serendipitous.

His entry into harness racing was accelerated by one play in high school football, which resulted in a torn ACL in his knee. With interest from schools like Syracuse and Maine, Cushing was hoping his next stop was the college gridiron.

“I went in for a tackle, for some reason I didn’t commit to it and I got bent over and twisted it,” the 23-year-old Michigan native recalled. “I went up to catch a ball on the next play on a kick return and there was a big ole’ pop and that was the end of the story.”

Thus, the son of driver Ron Cushing joined the family business four years earlier than he expected.

“I’d probably be driving horses either way,” Mitch said. “But (if I didn’t get injured) this would be my first year doing it because I would just be graduating college.”

As it turns out, he is sitting on 771 career wins and $5.19 million in earnings. The brunt of that was done at tracks in Maine and Plainridge Park in Massachusetts, with forays to Freehold, The Meadowlands and a few other East Coast tracks.

But this past winter, what Cushing thought would be a simple phone call to order a race bike from Ohio horseman Chad Foulk has veered his career to the Midwest. He has set up shop in Ohio and is back driving for Mike Hitchcock, who he drove for at the outset of his career.

“Chad and I just got to talking,” Cushing said prior to joining his parents for Sunday breakfast. “It really was nothing I had planned. He had mentioned to me coming out and wanting to try it out and if I wanted to stay he could offer me what he has for a sire stakes barn so that was a pretty good offer.

“I grew up driving for Mike Hitchcock ever since I was 19, and he had moved out there. I gave him a call and told him my conversation with Chad. Mike said ‘Just tell me when you’re coming, we’ll get you set up, we’ll go from there. We’ll put you on the horses and we’ll get rolling.’”

And while it’s always exciting to drive in the bright lights of The Meadowlands, it’s not always profitable for a young driver. Not to mention the difference in commute. Now living in Grove City and racing at Miami Valley, Cushing’s drive is slightly over an hour.

“I was living in Saratoga and driving 2-1/2 hours to go to Plainridge, which I made a good living at,” he said. “Then I would drive three hours to Freehold on the weekend and from Freehold work my way to The Meadowlands and go home from there.

“Now, no matter when I get in the car, unless I were to go to Northfield or The Meadows, I’m driving 75 miles. So, in that way it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s a quick drive, you’re racing for one of the best purse structures in the country and you’re racing 14 or 15 races a day.”

Cushing had his first drives while still in high school, winning four times in 15 starts in 2014. He is coming off a three-year run in which he won 620 races and earned more than $1.3 million each season, with a high of $1.68 million in 2019. That could make a guy comfortable, but Cushing saw the opportunity for more by moving.

He has gotten off to an OK start this year, with 10 wins and $102,908 in earnings through 124 drives. But Cushing knows he is, in effect, starting over in a new environment. Although he tends to get impatient when his career doesn’t progress as swiftly as he’d like, he realizes there are dues to pay.

“In a competitive sense I wish it would be a little better, but I can’t complain with how it’s going,” he said. “I’m from Michigan originally, but in the sense of the industry I have spent no time out here. Besides my dad I have no one I knew back in the day from racing in Michigan or Ohio. I have no connections out here besides Mike.

“So, I can’t complain, I’m getting some work, I’m doing well enough with what I have. Hitchcock’s horses are doing very well, I’m fortunate to get started with him.”

And he is optimistic things will only get better moving forward.

“It’ll be nice when Indiana opens up,” Cushing said. “Hopefully, things pick up a little more. You’ve got a lot of good drivers here with Hoosier being closed. There’s a lot of helmets, there’s more helmets than spots on the racetrack right now so hopefully we’ll see a little bit of a change and a little bit of a pick-up, and we’ll go from here.

“Right now, in the sense of money, it’s not far off of what I’m used to getting. My results are not the same but that will get there. I talk to my dad and I’m going to stay. It’s just the best way to be. I’ve talked to Chad at times and some other people, and if you want long-term goals Grand Circuit-wise, Ohio is strong anyway. I think they’re going to make a big impact in the next couple years if not sooner.”

And thanks to a seemingly innocent phone call, Cushing hopes to be in the middle of it all.

by Rich Fisher, for the USTA

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