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LATE BLOOMING CUMMINGS REPEATING BREAKOUT YEAR

Some overnight successes take more nights than others.

Take standardbred trainer John Cummings Sr., for instance.

Some 37 years after he started "monkeying around with horses" as a teenager, Cummings last year burst out at Buffalo Raceway with a fabulous season.

With 259 starters, he won at an amazing 32 percent clip with almost 60 percent in the money. He was Hamburg's top percentage trainer and No. 2 money winner. On the season's final night, Cummings won three races and tied Jim McNeight for the race-winning title with 83.

In 2001, Cummings is off to an even hotter start. Through last Saturday, he won 13 of 32 starts (41 percent) and finished in the money 75 percent of the time.

"I truly do enjoy the game," Cummings said. "When I'm in the paddock and my horse is fighting for the lead down the stretch, I'm just as excited now as I was when I first got in the game."

That was in the '60s, when Cummings, now 55, started helping his brother-in-law, Steve Flanigen, a former trainer. Horses were a hobby then for Cummings, who worked factory jobs, first at Trico and then at Bethlehem Steel.

"In 1982, I lost my job at the steel plant, they abolished that department," Cummings said. "And I thought 'well, let me give that (horse training) a shot and see if I can make enough to pay the bills anyway.' It's worked out."

Worked out in more ways than one.

Cummings and his wife, Lallah, who is "scared of horses" and rarely comes to the track, became parents of four sons -- John Jr., (now 38), Tony (36), Todd (31), and Kevin (29) -- who became drivers and/or trainers.

Kevin, currently his dad's main driver at Buffalo Raceway, was the Hamburg track's percentage champion last year and leads this year's percentage, race-wins and money-won standings.

"They're the worst critics of each other," Cummings said of his sons. "If one drives and makes a bad move, believe me, when they're all together at the house, they let him know that it wasn't a smart drive."

Cummings, who trains more than 20 horses, admits he is surprised by his high percentage and says "I don't know if I can keep that up."

He credits assistant Stacy Keene and the rest of his barn crew for much of his success. "If you don't have good help, you really can't make it," he said. "I think she's (Keene) the best out here. She's a hard worker."

Another key to success is not having to answer to too many other owners. Cummings owns nine horses outright and is a partner on several others. "I try to keep my horses classified (properly)," he said. "Not having owners or having a few owners around gives me a big edge. Because if you're training a horse for a guy and you think that horse went a good mile, you're apt to move him up (in class) because you don't want to lose that training bill. I don't have that problem. I can afford to just leave him in that class and win and win and win."

Which, as Raceway bettors know, is exactly what happens. Last year, Cummings won 13 races with Chrissys Success, 11 with Armbro New, 10 with Putnam Beast, seven with Annarama and 10 with "a special project with me," a now 7-year-old pacer named Blaze N Bull.

The gelding, which won all three of his 2001 Raceway starts, was claimed away Tuesday at The Meadows, near Pittsburgh, where Todd is a top 10 driver.

Cummings said his two best horses at the moment are pacers Mr Casanova and Putnam Beast. Mr Casanova, a 6-year-old owned by Robert W. Krol of Alden, came down from The Meadows last Saturday and got beat by Hezamachine (driven by Ken Mego for trainer Vincent Puglisi and owner David Malcolm) in 1:59, the fastest mile of the Raceway season.

"As soon as Todd drew up, he said 'bad drive, bad drive,' " Cummings said. "I'm sure they'll run together again. I think 'Caz' will be a little better."

Putnam Beast, winner of the Raceway's 2000 March Madness Stakes, is back in training and is ready for a qualifying race. "Putnam Beast had a good year last year, he won about $28,000," Cummings said. "He got a little sore, so I turned him out."

Cummings, who lives in Hamburg, enjoys racing in his backyard. But he admits that economic realities are pulling him northward, where purses have been beefed up with profits from slot machines at the race tracks. Despite his success, Cummings' horses last year earned only $121,474 from the small purses at the Raceway.

"(The cost of) everything in the horse business has tripled. . . . but the purses have declined," he said. "I've always loved Buffalo. My ideal was to race at Batavia Downs and Buffalo Raceway, that's all I ever wanted to race," he said. "Now I have to start going to Canada in order to make a living and have an owner make a profit."

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