The continuing education of Mitch Cushing and Rock Diamonds N

The continuing education of Mitch Cushing and Rock Diamonds N

March 12, 2022

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by James Platz

Mitch Cushing admits he didn’t have an affinity for veteran pacer Rock Diamonds N before this winter. He had driven the 9-year-old import, trained and co-owned by his father, Ron, twice before the Miami Valley Raceway meet. In the month of March, however, the two have teamed for back-to-back victories, the latest coming in the $24,000 Open II, wiring the field in a 1:52 performance on March 10.

“Honestly, I really wasn’t a huge fan. I always liked how fast he was, but he was stupid hot, he would get ridiculously hot and you couldn’t hold him. Getting to drive him this winter, I’ve been able to learn (from and with) him,” Cushing said.

Rock Diamonds N arrived from New Zealand in 2019 when Ron Cushing acquired the gelding with the help of friend and agent Frank Ranaldi. Owned in partnership with Kevin Sywyk, the Rocknroll Hanover—Dancing Diamonds gelding earned nearly $190,000 Down Under. Since his arrival in the United States, he has banked more than $300,000 in three full seasons and eight starts thus far in 2022. His latest victory pushed career earnings over $500,000.

During that first season stateside, the younger Cushing steered Rock Diamonds N to a triumph in the 60th annual Gold Cup and Saucer at Charlottetown Driving Park. The win still resonates with the 24-year-old catch driver because of its significance to the region.

“He’s the only horse that I’ve been fortunate enough to win a staple race with. He raced a spectacular mile there. It means something to people in Canada. It’s a big trophy and a huge event,” Cushing explained. “He’s the first horse I’ve had the opportunity to experience that with.”

Despite the win, Cushing didn’t fully appreciate the pacer. Entering this season, he had limited opportunities to sit behind the veteran in competition. Besides the Gold Cup and Saucer win, his only other time in the bike came at Plainridge Park in a race where he choked Rock Diamonds N down accidently. Paired with him eight times at Miami Valley, the duo have hit the board four times, producing victories in their last two attempts. Through the process, the catch driver has developed an admiration for the 40-time winner.

“As soon as you get him on a helmet, you literally just take your lines and drop them to your knees. And I mean literally, drop them like untied shoelaces. He just puts his head square in the middle of the guy’s back and follows him wherever they go. You don’t have to steer him, you don’t have to hold him, nothing. When you pull him off the helmet, you just grab the bit again and he’s ready to take you wherever you need to go,” commented Cushing. “He’s grown to become one of my favorites just because I’ve come to learn the horse and now I respect him. Not every horse is like that. It just goes to show the class that he has. It’s something that you don’t come by every day.”

Ron Cushing, a veteran of the Michigan circuit before moving to the northeast, brought six horses to Miami Valley shortly after Christmas. Two were claimed earlier in the meet, but Rock Diamonds N and 10-year-old stallion Starznheaven have each secured a pair of victories. In a few weeks, the elder Cushing will depart once Plainridge opens.

Mitch Cushing is three months into his second season in Ohio. A top driver at Plainridge, he moved to the Midwest in 2021. Before the move, he competed at Saratoga with weekend stints at Freehold and the Meadowlands. A phone call, however, changed his plans.

“I was focused on doing what I could to make it to Grand Circuit level. Usually you want to be as close as you can to that environment,” he said. “I was ordering a race bike from Chad Foulk, and he asked me what I was doing. He said, ‘I know you just moved to Saratoga. Have you ever thought about coming out to Ohio?’ I said, ‘Honestly, it has never crossed my mind.’”

The seed was planted, though, and soon the Michigan native was on the move to the Buckeye State. His first opportunities came via fellow New Englander Mike Hitchcock, a trainer who also made the move to Ohio. The driver is focused on putting down roots, adding accounts and improving each year. In 2021 he guided 136 winners, more than 100 less than in 2018 when he finished second in the Plainridge standings. While down in wins, he set a new career mark in purse earnings with just shy of $1.8 million.

“Scotty Zeron is a mentor of mind. He always told me what matters most is the column to the right. That’s the figure that pays the bills,” said Cushing. “The wins and everything else will come. If the number all the way to the right is always increasing or is always there, that is the number that allows you to do what you do in life.”

Currently, Cushing is driving at Miami Valley and MGM Northfield Park. He ranks in the top 15 at Miami Valley with six wins in 2022. He began driving horses for Ohio Hall of Famer Virgil Morgan Jr. last season, piloting 75-1 Odds On Shaggy to a narrow third-place finish in the $300,000 Ohio Sire Stakes final for sophomore pacing colts. The colt hit the board in a tight photo behind upset winner Borntobeshameless and heavy favorite Charlie May, a highlight for the driver, who has also guided Breeders Crown starter Refined to victory this winter for the trainer.

“The money is great, the schedule is great. The access to race seven days a week is amazing,” he said. “I added Northfield to my schedule, and now that my roots are a little more set, I have some connections. Everything is a process. I’m just looking to be better every year. This year I hope my average, my wins, my money, I hope it’s all better.”

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