Trenton, NJ — Sam Zimmerman lives in the small town of Elma, Iowa. With the emphasis on small.
“It’s got a gas station and a bar,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a little pluck-and-plum town. You pluck your head out the window and before you know it you’re plum out of town.”
But there are big things brewing when it comes to harness racing, as Zimmerman, his father Eli and older brother Elvin are a three-man operation at the growing Ames Racing Stable. The family-run operation currently has 14 horses in training and 13 racing, along with 14 broodmares and two stallions. For the most part, they train and race what they breed.
“We’re knit pretty tight, we kind of make decisions between the three of us,” Sam said. “Dad’s kind of the cornerstone of everything, he runs the checkbook and makes sure things are reaching around and everything else like that. As far as equipment changes and stuff, it’s between me and Elvin. We kind of decide what we want to change and those kind of decisions. But dad’s still the cornerstone of it all.”
Of the three, Sam is the relative newcomer to harness racing as he just began driving qualifiers and fairs this year. It has been a nice start for the 23-year-old, who has eight wins in 39 races. He notched his first on June 29 at What Cheer (Iowa) Fairgrounds with an Elvin-trained horse named SV Tymal’s Image.
“I came out of the two hole,” Zimmerman said. “I knew he was going to be good. He was sharp back then, we’ve got a little trouble with him now. But I felt pretty confident with him. We got off second or third, a couple made breaks so we were sitting second. I pulled him on the backside to the outside, thought he’d come on and he sure did. I didn’t think he’d get there but every step of the way he knew what he was doing and just kept pouring it on.
“It was kind of an easy race for me. We were coming into the stretch, the other guy still had a short lead. I touched him a little bit, thought he could do it and he proved me right. He knew what he was doing and went right on. That was a good one.”
It was only his fifth race, and the thrill of victory was euphoric.
“It was paradise,” he said. “That’s a good feeling to get there first, but driving is definitely a tough game. You’ve got to keep your head on straight and think smarter, not harder. That’s what I tell people. They ask me how I do it. I tell people, just try to trust in your horse and be there at the right time. Don’t over-think it or you’ll over-move yourself. You’ve got to go with the flow.”
Sam has been flowing in the right direction with the sport ever since he got interested. He was raised a Mennonite and born in Cumberland County, Pa., before moving to Iowa at age 8. Near the end of high school, his uncle showed the 17-year-old how to shoe horses and break yearlings.
“I kind of got into breaking horses for the racing industry,” Zimmerman said. “I got to know some of the people in Humboldt and at the Iowa Fair. I always wanted to be in the horses, but my first idea was always being a farrier or a vet or something like that. I didn’t expect myself to ever be in the driver’s seat.”
Zimmerman’s mindset changed three years ago when Elvin returned home after working in Pennsylvania with Justin Lebo, who trained Dan Patch winner Major In Art in 2008.
“Elvin started in as a groom and jogging and stuff like that for Justin,” Zimmerman said. “He kind of got some of the training tactics there.”
Once Elvin returned home, the family bought a barn five miles from their home, put in a track and started training. Eli had always liked horses but worked in construction most of his life. He now owns a welding shop but began taking a bigger interest in Standardbred racing over the past decade. Starting as a breeder, Eli would raise the babies and then either sell them or hire trainers.
Once Elvin got married and was looking to settle down, he wanted to start his own stable, so the two sons and their dad united. Elvin also drives, and got his first training and driving wins in 2017.
“It worked out perfect,” Zimmerman said. “Elvin came out here, we stuck together and took the babies from dad and kind of got them going for him so we have a family circle deal going now. Of course, you’re always trying to upgrade your breeding stock. If we got the money at the end of the season we like to go out and try to buy one of the better ones. It all kind of one-step-at-a-time worked out.
“When we started training some 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds, I did all the shoeing, we both worked as trainers. We kind of learned the tricks; there’s a trick to everything. We’re still on the working end and we’re still trying to learn all those tricks. Out here at the fairs we’ve got a handful of older guys who are about done training. You get talking to them and they let you in on a lot of the tricks.
“It’s been a very lucky learning curve to it all, I’ve been very fortunate that dad will go out and buy good horses, we get lucky enough to get them trained right, win some money back for him so we can keep going. Every year it’s been going better and better, so we’ll just keep trying to go up.”
Zimmerman feels Ames Racing is conveniently located for driving, as it is two hours from both Humboldt and Running Aces in Minnesota.
“Some of the babies that need more practice on how to race and getting to know the starting gate, we take them to the fairs and give them a little race room,” he said. “Then we take the better stuff to Running Aces.”
Sam has yet to get his training license but will look into that somewhere down the road. Right now, he is more interested in driving and training in the family business and is hoping to get his P driving license on Aug. 18.
“Last year I got to thinking I ought to try the driver’s thing, just check it out, see how it is,” he said. “It’s come a long ways. I’ve been very blessed with the way things went. I’ve had a couple catch drives at the fairs already. My first year of driving I can’t complain how things are going. I get to drive some good horses and I’ve been lucky enough to get in the winner’s circle probably more than most people are able to do in their first year, so I’ve been very fortunate that way.
“I look forward to someday going into training more and eventually have my own stable. But for right now it’s just the three of us here at the home farm. It seems to work pretty good as a team. We’re just going to stick together with that for now and see what life brings down the road.”
Let’s just hope it’s a road that stretches a tad further than the ones in Elma.