Cushing Climbing the Ladder at the Spa

Mitch Cushing is in the midst of his second career stint at Saratoga Casino Hotel and this time around things have been even better than in his first go round. The 25 year old Cushing is the son of longtime horseman Ron Cushing, who had a successful run of several years while competing here at the Spa. The elder Cushing won the Johnny Page Award at the track in back in 2006 as he made an immediate impact in the sulky upon coming to town for the first time.

Ron Cushing’s stable featured some top flight horses over the course of his several seasons at the Spa. It was only natural, as it is for so many in harness racing, that when it came time for his son Mitchell (Mitch) to begin a career that it would be in the sport that his dad has thrived in and one in which Mitch has been a part of for his whole life.

Mitch Cushing began driving as soon as he was able to. At the age of sixteen, the native of the state of Maine drove in amateur races and at the Fairs for a couple of seasons before becoming eligible to participate in pari-mutuel races just two years later when he turned eighteen. Mitch enjoyed some success in his “freshman and sophomore” campaigns in 2016 and 2017 before breaking out in a big way in ’18. In the 2018 season, Cushing was busy traveling, competing at a host of different tracks over the course of his breakout campaign.

Driving regularly in Maine before becoming a regular at Plainridge Park in Massachusetts, Cushing spent the final portion of his year competing at the Meadowlands and at Yonkers while continuing to establish himself as a catch-driver. Establish he did as by the end of the ’18 season, Cushing had piled up 247 victories in the sulky, a number that still stands as his career-high, en route to over $1.5 million in purses and a driving average of .340. It was the first of what would be six consecutive years in which Cushing would accrue over a million dollars in purses.

We first saw Cushing in the fall of 2019 when the young reinsman came to Saratoga to drive throughout the fall season. Mitch competed here on a “full time basis” in ’20 as although he did race at several other tracks from time-to-time, Saratoga was his home base. He finished the 2020 season eleventh in the driver standings, certainly an impactful first full season at the Spa and would have likely been the favorite to follow in his father’s footsteps in winning the Johnny Page Award had there been awards given out in that somewhat abbreviated racing season.

At the conclusion of the Saratoga meet in 2020, Cushing made the move to Ohio. There, he drove at Dayton Raceway to wrap up the year before navigating through the full Ohio racing circuit. Mitch became a regular at the seasonal Miami Valley Racetrack to begin his ’21 campaign before shifting to Scioto Downs in the springtime and ultimately landing back at Dayton. Cushing remained in Ohio throughout 2022 before making his return to the Spa in April of this year. Cushing immediately began enjoying some success and quickly started picking up more and more work in the sulky.

Cushing won his first pair of local Opens in his breakout 2020 campaign when he guided the Eve Bergeron-trained mare Birch Island Betty to back-to-back jacks in the Fillies and Mares Open. Mitch piloted Sheikh Yabooty N to an upset victory in the ladies’ Open in the springtime here in ’23 but a win in the Open Pace or Open Trot had eluded the talented young reinsman. That is until a couple Saturdays ago when he sat behind Soul Assassin.

Soul Assassin is in the midst of his breakout season in his first year competing at Saratoga while under the guidance of the meet’s leading trainer Brett Derue. Derue, who utilizes the talents of several different catch-drivers at the track, has been employing the services of Cushing more and more over the course of the last few months. Cushing has become the regular driver for Soul Assassin who has quickly emerged as the Derue stable star this summer. Thriving against mostly younger horses in classes such as the winners of two but not more than five race lifetime level throughout the spring, Soul Assassin has passed every test since graduating out of that class.

Soul Assassin became a pretty rare four year old to compete in the Open Pace at Saratoga when he debuted at the top level in early July. Soul Assassin finished first or second in nine consecutive starts leading up to his first try against the track’s top pacers. On July 29th, Soul Assassin got a pocket ride in the Open en route to a second-place finish in the feature. The following week, the rising star was again the runner-up in the $18,200 Open Pace after he toughed out a first-over trip en route to being second-best once again.

Following a try in the Batavia Open, it was back to the Spa on August 19th for Soul Assassin who benefited from perfect Cushing piloting as the talented chauffeur negotiated a pocket trip for the pacer despite drawing post position nine and subsequently starting from the second tier. Cushing followed out rival Pickup Man Hanover who had post two and negotiated a pocket ride for Soul Assassin who wound up getting the better of Pickup Man Hanover in the stretch en route to a 1:51.4 career-best victory. A lifetime-best effort at the right time for Soul Assassin who gave Mitch Cushing his first ever Open Pace win at Saratoga. Soul Assassin, who drew post eight in last Saturday’s installment of the Open, has had Cushing sitting behind him in each and every one of his local starts dating back to April of this year.

Mitch Cushing has been doing double duty for much of the spring and summer competing both here at Saratoga and at Plainridge Park where he is one of a handful of local drivers to be enjoying success at the Massachusetts track. Cushing sits, coincidentally, eleventh in this year’s driver standings at the Spa, the exact position he ended up in his only other full season piloting locally in 2020. Cushing has a bright future, whether that future includes Saratoga or not remains to be seen but the 25 year old is enjoying increased success seemingly by the week.

He has already moved over the 1,000 career win plateau in ’23 and is soon to eclipse $10 million in purses in his seven short years as a driver. Although he likely won’t be nominated for the Johnny Page Award (being that 2023 is not his first full season making an impact at the Spa), Mitch Cushing has certainly done well following in his father’s footsteps both in the business in general and more specifically in his successes at Saratoga.

Live racing continues the Friday, Saturday, Sunday evening schedule for one more week before the schedule changes post-Labor Day. First posts next weekend are set for 6:45pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!

Saratoga Casino Hotel | Saratoga Springs, New York

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