September 14, 2013

Steve Solloway: Like heaven harnessed to hoofbeats

FARMINGTON - Mike Cushing couldn't say good-bye to his father. So deep was his grief, he shook his head no when asked if wanted to speak at Rick Cushing's funeral last winter.

Instead, the son made a promise: He would honor his father in the winner's circle at Scarborough Downs after the last colt he bred won the Maine Sire Stakes' $52,334 trotting championship for 2-year-olds. Cushing never considered the odds.

Last Sunday, the colt named Maine Cast wasn't the favorite. In eight previous starts he hadn't won once. Some seconds, thirds or fourths, but no victories. With Cushing holding the reins, Maine Cast came from behind in the last stretch and won his first -- and last -- race of the season.

In the trackside interview, Cushing let nine months of pent-up love and respect pour out. Rick Cushing had opened the doors to the world of harness racing to his two sons. In a sport that some say is dying, Cushing's audience felt their own tears.

"We do this because it's our passion," said Cushing. "My father was the middle school math teacher at Mt. Blue for 38 years but he told his accountant he raced horses (for a living). Teaching math was his hobby."

Mike Cushing is a big man. He played football at Mt. Blue High, one of the offensive linemen protecting quarterback Mark Godomsky in the 1980s. He has a degree in agriculture from the University of Maine. His father suggested Mike become a teacher and get involved with harness racing part time.

Mike Cushing laughed. His father had set the example. Harness racing would take all of his time.

Rick Cushing found time to be involved in all facets of the sport and industry. From breeding horses, to training and driving them to being involved in various horsemen's associations and promotions.

He was a compassionate, but competitive individual. "My father gave my brother and me two rules. Rule No. 1: Don't fight. Rule No. 2: If you break Rule No. 1, don't lose."

Saturday morning, Mike Cushing stood in the entrance of his well-used stable at the Farmington Fairgrounds. The fair begins Sunday. Cushing and his wife, Sherry, own seven horses. Cushing trains about another dozen for other owners. He expects to have three or four horses entered every day of the weeklong fair.

"It will be hectic because this is home. You can't wait for it to begin and then you can't wait for it to end."

The first Cushing barn sits directly across a fairgrounds road. Pacers and trotters owned by Bob Cushing, Rick's brother and Rick's wife, Gloria, a former field hockey and basketball official, are there. Mike's older brother, Ron Cushing, lives in Albion and stables his horses in Sidney, near Waterville.

Rick Cushing was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2011. He received a bone marrow transplant and improved for a time before falling ill again. At age 68 he decided his fight was over. Hospitalized in New Hampshire, he wanted to return to his home in East Wilton.

The ambulance, with Gloria Cushing giving directions, made a detour to the Farmington Fairgrounds. About three dozen friends and family members waited for him at the barns. Mike Cushing was on the track with Maine Cast already harnessed to a training cart.

The ambulance went onto the track. Maine Cast followed. Through the ambulance rear window, Rick Cushing watched the colt he would never see race. He put forefinger to thumb and flashed the OK sign to his son.

Rick Cushing didn't believe in hard training for young colts or fillies. Mike Cushing remembered as he or Steve Wilson, an honorary Cushing family member, trained Maine Cast.

(Continued on page 2)

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