For Love Of The Game

The following piece was written by Ken Weingartner of Harness Racing Communications and appeared on the website. Driver/trainer Cathy Rutherford competed in harness races at Oak Ridge (in Virginia’s Nelson County) in 2015 and at the inaugural Shenandoah Downs meet in 2016. She will return to compete at Shenandoah again this fall — the second season will run from September 16th -October 15th with races every Saturday and Sunday at 1 PM. The track is located off I-81 in Woodstock, halfway between Harrisonburg and Winchester.

Freehold, NJ — Cathy Rutherford is a harness racing “lifer.” She drove in her first race in 1981, at the age of 14, and has competed as a driver in each of the 36 years since then. She has never started more than 138 races in a season, averaging roughly 65 races per year, but delights in every moment she spends with her small stable of horses.

“I love getting behind the starting gate,” said Rutherford, who is racing this month at Thunder Ridge Raceway in eastern Kentucky. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world; win, lose or draw. I love the traveling, the people, the horses; all of it. I’m always up for a new adventure.”

Rutherford has won 201 races as a driver and 100 races as a trainer.

“They all mean something,” she said about the victories. In many cases, the size of the purse is not what was most meaningful.

Photo courtesy of Cathy Rutherford
Cathy Rutherford has won 201 races as a driver and 100 races as a trainer.

“They were minor moments when a horse that had a lot of problems made their way to the winner’s circle,” Rutherford said. “I tend to buy problem children that need a little extra TLC or have had bad luck or a bad rap. That I could win a race with one that overcame some great obstacles to get there, I’ve had that a few times.

“It might have been little races for nothing, but those are the big moments.”

One such horse was a female trotter named Fort Riley. She took several years to get to the winner’s circle, but eventually enjoyed a 32-race stretch in which she hit the board 19 times and won four races.

“She was one of my favorites,” Rutherford said. “She went from not wanting to race to being the horse everybody watched on the circuit I raced. She wasn’t a great horse, but she was a special horse.”

Rutherford was born in Michigan and now lives in Illinois. Her father, Ken Rutherford, was a trainer and driver, best known for developing successful Illinois-bred trotters. Cathy jogged her first horse at the age of 6 and was helping train by the age of 9. Her first race, a matinee, was with a 2-year-old trotter named Cardinal Brandon, who went on to earn $206,974 in his career.

“I was pretty much born into it,” Rutherford said. “I was the kid you couldn’t keep out of the barn. It was just a given that I was going to race horses. It was going to happen.

“I’m a lifer.”

Rutherford has worked with horses both on a full-time and part-time basis. She has three horses now, two trotters and one pacer, and spent the offseason doing home construction and remodeling.

“The last few years I don’t race in the winter,” Rutherford said, adding with a laugh, “I’ve become a fair-weather trainer. I’ve cut my stable way back. I used to travel by myself with eight or nine horses. I worked myself into the ground.

“I don’t do it fulltime with a big stable because, like a typical woman, I’m a control freak. I never wanted a big stable because I’ve got to have my hands on everything. That’s why I drive most of my horses, especially my trotters. And the fact I’m a really lousy spectator. I’ve worked too hard to get them to race to have someone else screw it up. If anybody is going to screw it up it’s going to be me.”

Rutherford, following in her father’s footsteps, focuses her efforts on trotters.

“Pacers are like a necessary evil in my barn,” she said, laughing again. “We made millions of dollars with trotters when I was a child. My dad had a knack. I prefer them. They’re more of a challenge. They can be very challenging.

“That’s why I have to color my hair very regularly.”

Rutherford plans to race at several tracks this year, including Bluegrass Downs, Shenandoah Downs, Red Mile, Hawthorne, and possibly Hoosier Park. She also recently got her license to work in the paddock as an identifier.

For now, though, she is enjoying her return to action at Thunder Ridge.

“We don’t race for any money down here, but I wouldn’t change coming here for anything in the world,” Rutherford said. “It’s beautiful country and the horsemen are nice to each other, they’re supportive of each other. We get some enjoyment out of it.

“It’s a good place to get your horses prepped. We just hope to get ready for bigger and better later in the season.”

As for Rutherford’s greatest thrill in racing? Time will tell.

“I don’t know if I’ve had it yet,” Rutherford said. “I’ve had a lot of fun with my family and a lot of good horses, but I’m going to say my biggest thrill hasn’t happened yet.

“We’ve got something to look forward to.”