The pandemic that began over a year ago now has affected everyone worldwide. It has created so much negativity to people in so many facets of life. Whether the reasons are financial, psychological or social, everyone has been impacted. More overwhelming than any of those though, this pandemic has resulted in so much loss. For us in the harness racing community, and specifically here at Saratoga Casino Hotel, the impact has hit home. Covid-19 took the lives of a few trainers this winter both those active and some that had previously run stables at the Spa. Tragically, two of those who were lost were a pair of brothers who each had spent time as trainers here at Saratoga.
Both Darren Rybka and John Rybka Jr. loved horses and harness racing. Brothers and best friends, the two were born in Hudson, NY and grew up in Kinderhook. John began training back in the early 90’s and while it wasn’t his full-time career, he did have a stable of a few horses. After a pause in 1994, John Rybka Jr. starting things back up a decade later with the bulk of his career horses raced came from ‘06-‘11. Highlighted by a 2010 campaign in which he recorded career highs in starts, wins, seconds and purses earned, Rybka ran the barn in tandem with his brother Darren. The brothers put together a stretch in 2010-2011 in which they won 83 races while competing almost exclusively at Saratoga.
Darren’s sons Darren Jr. and Steve grew up around the stables and acquired a passion and work ethic for harness racing. Darren was extremely proud when his boys chose careers in racing and though he hadn’t been a hands-on trainer in quite some time, Darren still loved the sport from afar. As soon as last year though, Darren owned part of pacing filly Unstoppable Hall with Darren Jr. before selling the youngster to Steve.
Steve Rybka was a nominee for both the track’s Johnny Page and Peerless McGrath Awards in 2019. Though he was a runner-up in the balloting for each of the up-and-coming driver and trainer awards, Rybka certainly made an impression in his first full year as a horseman at the Spa. These days, Steve is doing a bit less driving and instead is focusing on training. While he still dons his colors to pilot from time to time, Rybka is in the midst of establishing a solid stable for himself, a barn that is currently led by the filly that has those family ties. Steve acquired Unstoppable Hall from his dad and brother late in ’20 and while she didn’t thrive immediately upon acquisition, it didn’t take long for her to become the Steve Rybka stable star.
Unstoppable Hall put in a couple of decent tries in the final month of the meet at Saratoga last season but it was the impact that she had once she hit the road that really vaulted her into star status. Rybka brought Unstoppable Hall first to Monticello where she discovered the winning way and then to Yonkers in December where she continued to thrive. The then sophomore won four consecutive races, two at each of the downstate NY tracks before returning to the Spa in March where she kept it rolling. Unstoppable Hall rattled off back-to-back jacks locally before traveling yet again.
This time, it was out the Mass Turnpike for the four year old as she competed for the first time at Plainridge Park on April 22nd. Perhaps the order would be too tall for the mare as she was taking part in a $15,000 race for lady pacers. Nope. She was up to the task once again and Rybka got the biggest win of his young career when local reinsman Shawn Gray guided Unstoppable Hall to a decisive romp in Massachusetts. The winning for the Rybka stable didn’t end there either. Last week, the young conditioner scored a pair of victories here at home as his Bettor Spirits N and Bettim Onthe River each prevailed. Yes, the year is still young but if the first third of the 2021 season is any indication of what the rest will be like, this could be a special year for Steve Rybka who already has eight wins and has seen his trainees hit the board 19 times in just 34 starts en route to a training average of over .380 in ’21. While we will undoubtedly see him in the sulky at times, Rybka’s focus on the training aspect of the sport is yielding great dividends for the likeable 25 year old.
Although they both developed their love for the game by spending time in the stables with their dad, Rybka’s older brother Darren’s journey in the sport has been a bit different than his. Working in the paddock as a high-schooler, Darren had a knack for being around horses. That aptitude was spotted early on by Heidi Rohr and Jimmy Nickerson who at the time were running their stable out of Middletown, NY but racing at Saratoga in addition to several other tracks. Darren often did the paddocks for the Rohr stable and not long after when Rohr and Nickerson moved their operation north to Saratoga full-time, Rybka was a logical choice to be a groom to help them in their barn. From that point on, close to a decade later already, Darren has become way more than just “barn help,” he is an assistant trainer. In the summer of 2019, Nickerson was badly injured in a car accident and at that point Rybka took the lead in the barn.
“What my crew did when I was down and out was incredible,” Nickerson told me. “Every last one of them was simply awesome. But honestly, we didn’t really miss a beat because Darren took the reins and really just ran things and did an unbelievable job.” “We knew he was capable of running a barn but he took over the day to day affairs when I was gone for months and he really became the key to the Rohr-Nickerson stable,” he said of Rybka.
While remaining the right hand man for Nickerson, Darren Rybka Jr. has maintained a small barn of his own, training three horses currently. Nickerson explained that while he hopes to keep Darren in his stable forever, he knows that likely isn’t practical. “He will probably go out on his own in the near future. I mean, he’s ready. He can do it all,” Nickerson said. When I asked him of the visible effects that the sudden passing of his father had on Darren this winter, Jimmy said “Darren and Steve handled this situation better than most people would have. They’re really still kids but they’re so mature. This was an awful lot to take for someone in their 20’s but they are really tough kids.”
“When he suffered the tragedies, I told him to take some time off to deal with things and he was quick to explain that being around the horses is how he could deal with things best. He wanted to stay at it and do what he does best. You can just see that the horses and racing are in his blood. He’s a natural but I know he owes a lot of his success to his dad.” In fact, both Darren Jr. and Steve both do. As Nickerson noted, “the brothers are very different personalities but they both have great work ethics and a passion for the game.” Darren Rybka Sr., or “Big D” as he was known, was certainly proud of his boys and their journey into racing and would be enjoying the successes that his sons are continuing to have here in 2021. RIP Darren and John Rybka, gone way too soon at the ages of 54 and 59, respectively.
Live racing takes place on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon starting at 12 Noon. We are happy to welcome back fans to the races starting this week as well. We are thrilled to have you back! Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!
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