Adrenaline junkie Matt Krueger loving the responsibility that comes with driving horses

by Chris Lomon

Whether it’s coming from out of the clouds or falling from the sky, Matt Krueger always makes the most of any opportunity that comes his way.

It’s been over nine years since he was laid off from his nearly 20-year job working at the Ford Motor Company in Kansas City, a life-altering situation that forced Krueger to find a new career.

After considering his options, he chose horsepower, but not the kind he had become accustomed to as an auto worker.

“My family has been in the horse racing business my whole life, so when I got laid off, I needed something to do. I went out and bought a set of colors and a race bike and went off to Balmoral Park. My grandfather [veteran horseman John Finn] had just passed away in 2011 and he was my idol, so I took on his colors. He had always been in the business and I watched his every move. When he passed away, I kind of got the bug and then when the opportunity came along, I jumped at it.”

Krueger’s leap of faith has paid off handsomely.

Not that the journey to where he is now was an easy one. Far from it, in fact.

He laughs when recalling some of the early times in his racetrack life.

“It’s kind of funny. I showed up at Balmoral with my colors and a bike, and basically, I just started begging for qualifying drives. It was tough. Homer Hochstetler needed a second trainer, so he hired me on. As a result of that, he started putting me on some of his horses. I did well with his stable – I ended up driving his entire stable that year – and you know how it is, when you sit behind good horses you win races. It took off like wildfire.”

Krueger’s first pari-mutuel win is certainly a unique story.

A combination of determination and dedication helped earn him his first trip to the winner’s circle.

“I was sitting in the paddock judge’s office at Balmoral and I had one drive that night. I was just sitting there in case someone booked off. A driver did call off that night and a trainer came into the office. The paddock judge asked him if he needed a driver. I was sitting there and said, ‘I don’t have one in that race.’ So, the gentleman said, ‘Sure, put him on the horse.’”

As he drove by the infield tote board in the post parade that night (Aug. 5, 2012), Krueger looked at the odds beside his horse’s number.

He was caught off guard by what he saw.

“I kind of do a double-take and realize that I’m 1-5 with this horse, Katies Song Girl. The gentleman didn’t know me from dirt. So, we’re 1-5, we win the race and we go to the winner’s circle. The announcer said, ‘Congratulations to Matt Krueger on your first pari-mutuel win.’ The trainer looks at me, his eyes bug out, and has this look that said, ‘This is your first pari-mutuel win?’ It was just circumstance and luck to fall into my first win.”

That same year, Krueger’s cousin, Lyle Scurlock, had a 3-year-old colt, LB’s Allamericanjoy.

The driver and pacer hit it off immediately. Krueger piloted six of the gelding’s seven victories on the season.

“He had some issues, but Lyle gave me a shot and it worked out really well. That horse gave me my first 1:50 mile and he opened up a lot of doors for me. I’m a firm believer that a driver is only as good as the horse they drive. If you’re not sitting behind a good horse, you won’t be a success. You can be the best driver, but if you’re on a bad horse, you won’t hit the board. And then, you’re not on the radar. But when you get a good horse, that opens the door to opportunities with other trainers.”

There have been a few bumps on the road since then, but Krueger has endured and posted solid numbers both as a driver and trainer.

Currently, he’s in Florida, a place that he knows well.

“Last year was the first year I committed to Hoosier Park and it was a pretty decent year for me. So, that’s the plan. When they open in March, I’ll had back when they start qualifying and start putting my name out there again. This is my sixth year coming to south Florida. The first four years, I’d come to race at Pompano, and that’s where I met [trainer] Tony Alagna. He asked me what I was doing during the day because he needed a trainer. So, I started training babies for Tony. I did that for four years, and for the past two years, [trainer] Travis Alexander asked me to help him out, so I’m training his babies for him.”

Krueger is also feeding his competitive nature during his time in the Sunshine State.

When he’s not on the greens, he’ll occasionally take to the blue skies.

“I’ve always been an adrenaline junkie. I started out racing motocross. I never felt pressure or intimidation, or a fear factor. I’m a very competitive person. I played sports all the way through school, so that competitiveness and drive is not something I had to learn. When I have time here in Florida, I play golf. I also like skydiving. It’s the same with driving, that adrenaline rush. Someone is trusting me with their whole week’s worth of work for two minutes. They put their livelihood into my hands. The rush I get from the responsibility that comes with that is amazing.”

The feeling harness racing’s thrill-seeker gets from jumping out of a plane is a mix of bliss and serenity.

“Well, the freefall is one thing, but when that parachute opens and you’re floating 5,000 feet above the ground, it’s just like everything stands still. It’s so peaceful. Seeing the world from that point of view is amazing.”

Which is exactly how Krueger feels when he’s in the sulky.

Closing in on 400 career driving wins, the man who calls Manteno, IL home, has come a long way since he made the leap to harness racing.

He’s not slowing down his pursuit of more racing success by any stretch.

“When I first started working with Tony, he asked me to come work with him New Jersey, and I did, which opened up a lot of doors for me. He used me to drive some really great horses. As a result, I started driving some Sires Stakes horses for him and then I went to Lexington for home. I’ve driven for a lot of great trainers as a result of that, people like Linda Toscano, Brian Brown and George Ducharme – when doors open like that, you want to make the best of it.”

No doubt Krueger has done precisely that.