As we mention in this column on a fairly regular basis, harness racing is a family sport. So many of the drivers and trainers involved in the standardbred industry come from families that have in some way been involved in the sport, oftentimes for generations. Steve Rybka certainly fits that criterion. The 24 year old grew up in Valatie, NY about twenty miles south of Albany and was part of his parents’ stable for as far back as he can remember. The family was stabled in Chatham at the Columbia County Fair Grounds where Steve and his brother Darren Jr. helped in the barn of their father Darren Rybka. Rybka Sr. wound up moving his stable to Saratoga where he trained with his brother John for more than a decade.
After graduating from Ichabod Crane High School, Steve Rybka kind of veered away from harness racing before returning. Following a conversation with his brother in which he expressed some interest in getting a qualifying license to drive, Steve wound up doing just that. He immediately fell in love with driving horses and at that point decided this is what he wanted to do as a career. Becoming a catch-driver is not an easy thing for anybody so Steve knew that he would have to have a stable and train some horses in order to make a career in racing. He began a small stable in 2017 and got his provisional license to drive that same year. While he recorded three wins as a trainer in ’17, Rybka headed into the 2018 campaign seeking his first driving victory.
With only seven drives under his belt in 2017, Rybka began his ’18 season racing at Monticello in the wintertime. It took just two starts for the young reinsman to break his maiden as he found his way to the winner’s circle after piloting his trainee Rockintheniteaway to a three-wide score. Dismissed at odds of 28-1 that afternoon, Rockintheniteaway was coming off a solid effort from post eight and therefore her trainer-driver was pretty confident in her heading into that race. The claiming pacer made good on the confidence of Rybka when she made a sweeping move in the final quarter to record the upset victory, the first in the driving career of the young pilot. When I asked Steve about the thrill of his first win and driving in general, he perked up immediately. “There is a serious adrenaline rush when you drive. It is hard to even explain. It is just incredible. I decided to get into the business full-time because I love driving so much but I have been fortunate to get some great owners that have helped assemble a strong stable as well,” Rybka explained. When I asked him about his owners, Steve explained that he became associated with owners Marc and Michelle Treffi from Glens Falls who are part of an owning syndicate called The Stable Canada (TheStable.ca). This kind of syndicate is becoming more and more popular in horse racing as it allows multiple different people to own a share of the stable’s horses. Each owner, commonly, owns a small percentage of each horse and thus doesn’t have the same amount of money invested, obviously, as does a sole owner or even one who has a couple of partners.
Though he officially debuted in 2017, Rybka had his first full year as a driver and trainer last season. In his ’18 campaign, Steve trained 62 starters winning six times and logged 96 starts as a driver scoring five victories. Here we sit in September with three months still remaining in the 2019 racing season and Rybka has already eclipsed almost all of his numbers from last year. Steve credits his strong group of current horses for his recent hot streak. He mentioned Devisser as a horse that he trains that has really come into his own. “He has actually surprised me quite a bit,” Steve said of his four year old pacer. “Devisser is a lot faster than I originally thought he was. He’s racing great right now.” Devisser rattled off three consecutive victories in August for Rybka who piloted him in each of his scores last month, the last of which came in 1:53.3 while competing in the $15,000 claiming ranks. Devisser, who has emerged as the Rybka stable star in recent months, finished second on Saturday night while pacing in 1:53 once again to move his “on the board” streak in local starts to seven.
Pacing mare Sally De Vie was also a runner-up on Thursday afternoon with Rybka at the controls. The young distaffer has now finished first or second in six of her last nine starts to largely aid in boosting Rybka’s current training average to over the .300 mark. Rybka mentioned a young pacer named Stud Muffin as one to watch out of his barn in the coming weeks. The horse qualified on Saturday following a short layoff after being gelded and Steve is very excited with the prospects of the three year old who scored wins in two of his four starts since joining the Rybka stable this summer. When I asked Steve to tell me something that fans of harness racing that have never been in the sulky maybe can’t appreciate or what has surprised him the most about driving, he mentioned the speed of things. “You can watch, as I always did, and question why a driver does or doesn’t do something, but until you’re out there to experience it, you just don’t realize that you have a split second to make your decision sometimes. It’s so much tougher than it looks. It’s easy to watch on TV and question a drive but it’s so fast-paced that if you blink and miss your chance, it might be too late,” Steve told me. “Driving isn’t easy but I’ll tell you, there is nothing better. The adrenaline rush you get when you win or even when you look up at three quarters and know you have a chance to win, it just doesn’t get any better than that,” Rybka explained. As far as his plans for the future, Steve told me he expects to stay here at Saratoga for as long as he can. “This is my home track. I love it here,” he affirmed. And though he is only a handful of years removed from his high school days, Steve Rybka is already making his presence felt in what is technically his third year on the track but really is his second full season at the Spa. The “sophomore” campaign has been a breakout one for the young driver-trainer who has acquired his ‘A’ license recently after shaking his tag as “provisional” and has looked every bit the part on the track in 2019.
Live racing takes place every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoon starting at 12 Noon and on Saturday evenings with first post time 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!