by Chris Lomon
Kurt Sugg has always been a man with a plan.
Attention to detail, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, isn’t lost on the longtime Ohio horseman.
On this day, the standardbred racing veteran, the one who has over 4,300 driving wins, and nearly 1,100 more as a trainer, is building something special.
“We have 35 acres here (the property lies between Polk, OH, and Ashland, OH, about an hour from Northfield Park) and we just bought some property. We just built and we’re putting the finishing touches on that. I’m actually out in the barn right now, cutting some wood so that I can line the walls.
“We originally bought six acres and we built a barn, and then we built a house. We bought six more acres right next to that, and then 26 acres came up for sale here this winter and we closed on that about eight weeks ago. We’re going to add another pasture field for the horses and we’re going to have a guy put in a track for us, so we can train right here at home.”
And no, he’s not endeavoring to buy up Ohio, one acre at a time.
“There’s no more to buy in this area, and I’m 50 years old, so I don’t need to buy up any more.”
Not when his racing career is still in high gear.
Sugg is a major force in the Buckeye State, steadily rising his way through the ranks to become one of Ohio’s most successful driver/trainers.
It was in 2007 when he stamped himself as a top-tier driver, a year that yielded 139 trips to the winner’s circle, marking the first time he had eclipsed the 100-win plateau.
Things would only get better from there.
Since that time, he’s reached the 300-win mark on four occasions, and recorded 200-plus victories 11 times. In 2018, his 44 training triumphs enabled him to track down his 1,000th conditioning win.
Before live racing was temporary halted due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, Sugg was on pace to best the career-high 375 driving wins he notched in 2016. He was also training 15 horses.
In 601 starts in 2020, he’s posted 96 wins – putting him behind only five-time national champion Aaron Merriman in the Northfield standings – and just shy of $700,000 in purse earnings.
Patience, persistence and perseverance have paid off plentifully for Sugg.
He learned those qualities, first-hand, from his father, Ivan.
In 2003, Ivan was named U.S. Trainer of the Year, due in large part to his efforts in guiding future Hall of Fame inductee No Pan Intended to the coveted Pacing Triple Crown.
Sugg, during his childhood years, would frequently join his father on harness racing trips to Ohio county fairs.
“Looking back, you realize all of the things you picked up just by watching him, the way he approached his career,” said Kurt. “All of that has helped me along the way.”
With the interruption to the 2020 racing season, he’s had ample time to both look ahead and look back on his career.
And when he does think of his 30-plus years in standardbred racing, Sugg views it in terms of stages, not totality.
“When I was younger, I worked for my dad, who had a Grand Circuit stable. I’ve travelled all over to a lot of tracks. I did some driving early on – not a whole lot – and then I went out on my own, and stayed in Ohio. But I went to Florida in the winter and didn’t drive a whole let then. Since I’ve stayed in Ohio full-time, I get a lot of drives, and I really enjoy that, to tell you the truth. It’s probably my favorite thing, to drive the horses.
“I think Northfield is a great place to race. The drivers, we all get along, and it’s a fun place to race. And it obviously makes it a little more fun when you have some great stables to drive for. I’ve definitely won a lot more races than I thought I would have.”
In his formative years in the race bike, Sugg didn’t have grandiose expectations or any specific career goals.
Instead, he was buoyed his love of horses and the sport, content to be part of a world he already held in high regard.
“When I first started, I never thought I’d be where I’m at now, in terms of lifetime wins. Early on, I just drove my dad’s horses and didn’t do any catch driving. I never thought any of this would happen. Back then, I didn’t have a certain number of wins that I wanted to achieve. As I went on, I thought it would be nice to get to 1,000 wins one day.
“Where I’m at now, if you had asked me 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought I’d have this many wins. I had a really good year last year. It started out slowly and it picked up in the middle of March, and then kept going. I had a really good start to this year, and I was hoping to have more wins than I’ve ever had in one year, but I don’t think that will happen.”
As for what got him to this stage in racing, Sugg once again points to the decision to stay put, and forego travels to the Sunshine State, as a genuine game changer.
“I used to train a stable of two- and three-year-olds. I would come up to Ohio in May and on the first of October I’d go back to Florida in the winter. Now, spending all of time in Ohio, and racing at Northfield, I’d pick up a couple of drives here and there. Then, it just kind of snowballed. Now, a lot of nights, I’m in almost every race. That makes the numbers go up, as does driving for some excellent owners. If you’re out there in a few races on 15-1 longshots, it can be tough. When you have three or four favorites every night, that really helps anybody’s win total.”
Success has come with sacrifices.
A busy life on the half-mile track has meant less time on the home front.
“The biggest challenge is family life. My wife, she works at a school. So, usually, she leaves around seven in the morning and I’m still sleeping. She goes to work and I go jog the horse in the morning. I’m back in the afternoon and I’m by myself. When she gets home, I’m out driving. That makes it a little hard. When we do have those nights together, we’ll go out for dinner or see a movie. We also enjoy going on vacation. But with this industry, if you want to find success, you have to put in the time and effort.”
It’s what was expected of Sugg, every day, when he worked for his father.
When he recalls those days, he’s reminded it wasn’t words that helped shape him as a young horseman.
“My dad had a great work ethic and he instilled in that me and my brothers. We’d work all day long. That, more than anything, has really stayed with me.”
But not just on the racetrack.
Sugg has applied the same approach to his barn-building blueprint and life, in general.
“It’s really gratifying. We started out small and now we’re going to have 17 stalls when we’re all done. My one barn is about 50 feet away from my garage door and the other one is about 120 feet. It definitely gives you a sense of accomplishment. When it’s all done, I can sit in here, look at it and say, ‘It’s better than I ever thought it could be.’”
Just like a racing career, through design and dedication, that was built to succeed.