by Chris Lomon
It was just over nine years ago when Kyle Ater went to great lengths, more specifically, one length, to get the better of his role model on the racetrack.
Rewind to June 19, 2011, at Scioto Downs for the Battle of the Generations on Father’s Day, a three-race event that showcased top younger drivers competing against their famous fathers.
In the final event of the series, Ater, aboard pacer Noble Jet, rallied from third at the stretch call to cross the wire a length winner in a time of 1:55.4.
The runner-up, Doc’s Bonanza, was in rein to Ater’s father, Dan.
“I rubbed it in pretty good,” recalled Kyle. “I couldn’t resist. But he wasn’t too upset about it.”
Hardly the type of gift a father would anticipate on a day named in his honor, but the result wasn’t that much of a surprise.
After all, the younger Ater learned everything he knew from an Ohio harness racing legend.
Involved in the sport for more than 40 years as a trainer/driver, Dan Ater counts driving titles at Lebanon Raceway, Scioto Downs, Northfield Park and Balmoral Park among his numerous successes. His top horses include Western Resolve, Firm Belief, Capital Request, Cruzin Inya Jammys, Mystique Cruiser and Dancin Yankee. In 2016, he was inducted into the Ohio Harness Racing
Hall of Fame.
It’s been anything but a drama-free journey.
Serious health issues, including lengthy battles with prostate and pancreatic cancers, sent Ater to the sidelines at various points in his career.
But, just like his horses have earned a reputation for, he’s never thrown in the towel, even when he was told at one point that he had five years to live.
Kyle has adopted that very same never-give-up attitude both on and off the racetrack.
After he was struck down by a serious bout with the flu six years ago, causing him to miss all of his Monday drives at Dayton Raceway, Kyle was back in the race bike two nights later.
The end result was a four-win evening, all double-digit payouts, including a pair of 23-1 triumphs with trotters Bad Habit and Northmedo Esther.
“I guess I should get the flu more often,” quipped Kyle.
With over 2,100 driving wins and counting, the 43-year-old has recently added the role of trainer to his repertoire, taking over the reins from his father, who recorded 1,697 wins as a driver, and nearly 1,700 more as a trainer (he recorded a career-high 150 victories in 2017).
This year, Kyle is campaigning the string of 26 horses the pair has under their care.
And the results are hardly surprising. As of July 10, he has 12 wins and 32 top-three finishes from 71 starts.
Like father, like son.
“My dad has made this [racing career] a lot easier on me,” said Kyle, who posted a career-high208 driving wins in 2017.
“He’s definitely my role model. He’s the one who taught me that nothing is easy and you’ve got to work for what you want. That’s what I live by. Dad is getting to the age where he wants to turn things over to me. With the coronavirus, he can’t get to the races because of his prior health problems. He can’t take the chance of getting sick. He decided when Scioto opened to turn it over to me.”
The two, based in Clarksburg, OH — about 40 minutes from Scioto Downs — remain close, both literally and figuratively.
“He still comes to the barn, but he’s doing a lot of fishing on Lake Erie, and I think he’s ready to move on to other things,” said Kyle. “We talk racing every day. He’s taught me so well. I’m sure there are a lot of people who wish they had someone like that in their life. We’ve got some good horses, so we’ll just keep doing our best to get them into the winner’s circle.”
They don’t have to travel far to have conversations, racing or otherwise.
“We bought a house right next to the farm where the horses are,” said Kyle. “I take my golf cart there every morning to see them. It was my dad’s grandpa who originally owned the farm. My grandma grew up on that farm and my dad ended up buying it in the early 1990s. In 1997, we built a five-eighths mile track. There’s also a swimming pool, turnouts, an Equiciser, a spa – we’ve got everything. It’s a very nice facility. There’s about 63 acres there. We’re out in the country on an old back road.”
The serene surroundings could perhaps inspire another Ater to follow in the family horse racing footsteps.
Kyle, and his wife, Sarah, are the parents of a 3-year-old son, Wyatt, who is already showing an affinity for standardbreds.
“I love spending time with my family,” said Kyle. “Sarah and Wyatt come over to the barn a lot. They’re involved and they both love it. Wyatt, he loves his grandpa. Him and dad are buddies. Dad, his house is right there on the farm. So, it’s a big family deal for us.”
Keeping the Ater name front and center in Ohio racing is a source of pride for Kyle. These days, he’s working hard to get their pacers and trotters back in form after COVID-19 shuttered live racing for part of the racing season.
“Some of the horses didn’t come back quite as sharp, but they’re starting to come around now. The older horses, they have more problems. The break didn’t hurt them, but it didn’t help them. The old warhorses, they’re used to going to the gate every week. It takes them a little while longer to readjust, but they’re coming along.”
Enduring any adversity, past or present, doesn’t prompt a break in stride for Kyle’s steady-handed approach.
Staying resilient is a trait he comes by naturally.
“When times were tough and we didn’t have slot machines, it was rough. It was hard to make a living back then, but you just had to keep grinding away. There will be good times and bad times, but my dad taught me no matter what, you always have to keep going on with it. We’ve been lucky to have good owners throughout it all. The bottom line is that I really love what I do.”
Even if it means – at least on one occasion – crossing the wire ahead of your role model.