by Chris Lomon
Not many 8-year-olds would know what they wanted to do for a career. But Kyle Cummings certainly did.
“When did I know I wanted to be a harness driver?” repeated Cummings. “It was the first time I ever jogged a horse. I was eight, and it was a great feeling. The speed and the adrenaline rush you get from sitting in the sulky is an amazing feeling. I love going fast. I pretty much knew at the moment what I was going to be.”
His grandfather, John P. Cummings Sr., was a longtime New York horseman who first got involved in the sport in 1968. The most notable horse he trained was Arm And A Leg (1:54, $320,791) that won 13 out of 39 starts in 2009 en route to Western New York Horse of the Year honors.
John Cummings Jr., Tony Cummings, Todd Cummings and Kevin Cummings all learned the tools of the trade from their father, each one of them training and driving standardbreds from an early age.
Kyle, now 20, has followed in those very footsteps.
On the night of April 3, 2019, the young reinsman partnered then 9-year-old Jude Hall ($4.60 to win), a pacing son of Southwind Lynx (KY), to victory at Buffalo Raceway in a Class D race.
It was his first pari-mutuel driving win, a gate-to-wire one-length score timed in 1:59.2.
The victory, aside from being a milestone, was special for another reason.
Cummings mother, Tammy, owns the horse bred by Walnut Hall Limited and Steven Katz.
“It was pretty awesome, especially winning with my mom’s horse. We had the rail and it was nice and easy. He pretty much did it for me. I just sat there, and he took me around the track. No one was ever really that close to him. He did it all by himself. You love those types of wins. It’s, ‘get ready and smile for the winner’s circle picture.’
“My uncle, who drives at Buffalo, he was there in the winner’s circle with us. My mom was so proud and told me I did a great job. My sister, unfortunately, she couldn’t be there, but she’s a big supporter of mine. My dad, he couldn’t be there, but he was watching it at home.”
Support is never in shortage for Cummings, something he understood well before that first win.
Having family and friends in his corner makes the rough patches on the racetrack easier to deal with.
“It’s great. My parents let me drive all of their horses. It means a lot for them to give you that opportunity, and you want to make the most of it. From the moment I started driving, when I was 18, they told me I could the drive the horses they own. They started out with just a few horses, and now they have eight. They’re looking to buy some more, so that means that I’ll be able to drive more. My parents have played a huge role in my career.”
After 24 wins in his 2019 rookie season, Cummings was eager to improve upon that total this year.
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic might prevent him from reaching that goal, but it’s not going to diminish his desire to heighten his skills in the sulky.
He’s learned plenty about the sport and his role over the past two racing campaigns.
“I think patience is something that has really helped me. I’ve worked hard to put my horses in the best spot to win, or to at least pick up a check. Each race night, it’s something new every time. You’re able to pick up more knowledge every time you drive. The way I look at it, there’s never a race you can’t win.”
Cummings has also never forgotten the one bit of advice he heard early on in his career, words that he reminds himself of each time he takes hold of the reins.
“You always want to be going forward in the stretch, not backwards. That’s easier said than done, but that’s always the goal. Anything can happen at any point in a race where you have to make a change of plans in a split-second. Hopefully, whatever you choose to do helps you move forward down the lane, and you’re not backing up instead.”
When he’s not driving on the western New York racing circuit or at Pennsylvania racetracks, Cummings is taking his best swing, literally, on the golf course.
It’s the ideal chance to leave behind any of the racetrack stresses to focus on netting a few pars and birdies with his buddies.
“We play a lot of golf. My golf game, it’s good on some days, and it’s bad on other days. Sometimes I can keep the ball straight, and other times, I’m hitting it either left or right. I would say driving is the best part of my game. My putting and my short game aren’t great. But I’m working on it.”
Just as Cummings is with his driving skills.
“I’m constantly looking at ways to improve, watch tapes of the races, and going over every detail, big or small. That’s important, especially for a young driver. You always want to prepare the best you can, be at your best when you are on the racetrack, and whatever happens, you try not to let anything affect your focus on the next drive.”
Not having a lot of time between races to overthink what just transpired is ideal, he noted.
“You try not to stay stuck on what just happened the race before. If you win, that boosts your confidence, and you use that to your advantage for the next race. If it was a tough result, you let it go because it might affect the next horse you drive. You’re going to make mistakes, so you move on and move forward.”
Never backwards, right?
“Exactly. When you’re driving, you have eight horses, and seven other drivers trying to put their horse in the best spot. You just have to adapt and you just always try to keep going forward.”