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DOUBLE DUTY ISN'T PIE IN THE SKY FOR CUMMINGS
RACING FEEDS PASSION
BUT PIZZA PAYS BILLS

Pepperoni and cheese by day. Pacers and trotters by night (and Sunday afternoons).

Welcome to the world of Kevin J. Cummings, pizzeria owner in Orchard Park and the top harness horse driver at Buffalo Raceway in Hamburg.

Cummings, 34, believes most of his customers at Anjon's, 5427 South Abbott Road, are not aware of his double life. Neither are most of his fans at the track, where he is in his second straight season of winning the most races.

Which job does he prefer? It's definitely not a photo finish. Pizza and subs pay the bills, but racing wins by many lengths in the passion department. It's his original family business.

Cummings, a 5-foot-8, 150-pound Frontier High graduate, said he recognized early on that he had a talent for driving fast horses.

"I've been in racing pretty much all my life," he said. "My dad (trainer John Cummings Sr.) used to bring me and (brother) Todd to the barn on weekends. . . . We'd jog the horses and by the time we were 10 and 11 we were training horses to the bike in (one-mile times of) 2:07, 2:08 on a farm track. We always loved it.

"I liked all of it and the fact that my dad loved it. You start out wanting to be around him. And then I just grew to love it," Cummings said.

"My first win was my second drive of my life," he said. "The horse was Orlando Otto in 1988."

Since his professional debut at age 18, Cummings has won 838 of 4,380 races (19.1 percent) while his horses have earned purse money of $1,698,867. Last year he led the Buffalo Raceway standings with 117 wins in 532 starts (22 percent) and $267,476 in purses. This year, he's back in first place with 35 wins in 139 starts (25.2 percent) and $95,204.

"My breakthrough here was in '99-2000," he said. "My dad had a powerful stable and he basically put me on the map.

"You can be here all your life, but if nobody uses you, it doesn't do you any good. My dad was real hot for a couple of years. He won the training titles, I won the driving titles and people knew it. They realized how good I was then."

Unlike some of his competitors, Cummings does not exercise horses at the track in the mornings. He is strictly a "catch driver" who accepts free-lance assignments from trainers for a 5 percent commission.

Cummings said working a day job and skipping morning training doesn't seem to affect his racing performance.

"I've never had a problem with that. (Driving) has always been like (riding a) bicycle for me," he said.

So far this year, Cummings has won 35 races for 13 trainers. Five wins have been with horses trained by his father. Ten winners have come for Pennsylvania-based Kris Rickert.

"He's awesome," said Rickert, who said his goal is to become the meet's leading trainer. "Kevin shows a lot of patience. He always ends up in the right spot at the right time. . . . He's extremely patient. He just waits for everything to develop in a horse race."

Cummings attributes his patience partly to the tutoring of David Miller, the nationally prominent horseman who drives at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Cummings worked for Miller at the Meadows, near Pittsburgh, in 1993.

"I learned a lot from him. A lot on patience. I thought I was a good driver, but I knew from watching him that he was a fantastic driver. By watching him and talking with him and working for him, I learned a lot," Cummings said.

"Experience is always good, but no matter how much you drive, experience is only going to take you so far. You've got to have some talent on top of it to be even better," Cummings said. "It's just a knack to know when to come with a horse and when to leave with him. Putting him in the right position to win the race and getting a little more out of a horse."

Over the past two seasons, Cummings' closest driving rival has been his older brother, John Cummings Jr., who finished 10 winners behind him in 2004 and currently trails by nine.

Until last year, raceway policy -- aimed at avoiding appearances of collusion -- prohibited brothers from driving in the same race. General Manager Simon Crawford said he's satisfied that since the ban was lifted the Cummings brothers have proved to be worthy competitors who "race very hard."

"We're very competitive. We don't gang up on anybody," Cummings said. "If we run first and second it's just because we have the better horses. We're both good drivers. We've both been in it our whole life. . . . I want to be able to drive against him. I think the public likes it, too."

"Unbeknownst to a lot of people here, me and Kevin are very competitive," added John. "I'm a little upset right now that I'm . . . behind him. He's a good driver. He makes my job more difficult, I'll tell you that. He really does. If we were sitting 10th and 11th (in the standings), I can assure you this wouldn't be an issue. It'd be just the opposite, they'd be laughing and giggling."

"It's a very competitive game," Kevin said. "I think the public's perspective is a lot of the races are fixed. And it's definitely not true. These people are over here working hard to earn purse money. There's no money in betting here. Why would they do something like that? The purse money's high right now. You couldn't possibly make enough to take a horse out of a race. It's just senseless. I don't think the public understands that."

With a recent 20 percent purse increase thanks to the track's year-old video lottery machines, Buffalo Raceway prize money ranges from $1,700 to $6,500 per race. Since the winning horse gets 50 percent of the purse and the driver gets 5 percent of that, drivers earn between $42.50 and $162.50 per visit to the winner's circle.

It's nice, but for Kevin Cummings it's still not enough to compel him to quit the restaurant business. Not with a wife (Rhoda) and three growing daughters -- Kristy (age 9), Kara (6) and Kandice (3) depending on him.

But if purses keep rising, Cummings said, there's always the possibility of a brighter future for racing.

"Hopefully, some day I can do it full time again and be able to count on it."
e-mail: rsummers@buffnews.com