Greenville graduate Jeff Nisonger builds career in harness racing


DARKE COUNTY – Having won more than 3,000 races as a harness racing driver, Greenville alumnus Jeff Nisonger is transitioning from driving horses to training them.

The 2000 Greenville graduate still drives horses just not as often as he previously did when he built up on the most impressive resumes of drivers in the area.

“Now I’ve kind of split my time between half training and half driving, trying to evolve in the business,” Nisonger said.

Nisonger got his start in harness racing in his hometown of Greenville when he was about 10 years old. A family friend showed him the barns at the Darke County Fairgrounds, which led to him working in the stables on the weekends. He began working more and more at the fairgrounds, ultimately turning his love of animals into a full-time job.

“I cut my teeth and learned most of the things at Greenville there through multiple trainers,” Nisonger said. “I owe it mostly to the horsemen at Greenville who taught me.”

Nisonger now lives in Lebanon and has a barn at the Warren County Fairgrounds. He travels throughout Ohio and beyond racing throughout the entire year.

“There’s always somewhere you can go to race,” he said.

The Greenville alumnus was racing in single-digit temperatures at Miami Valley Raceway in January when he reached the 3,000 career win milestone driving Brookletssugarland, a horse he trains, to victory.

“That made it even a little better,” he said of driving his own horse.

When Nisonger began his career he didn’t imagine he’d ever reach 3,000 career victories, instead choosing to focus on smaller goals.

“It was a huge accomplishment,” Nisonger said. “I set small goals. My first goal I always thought it would be neat to become driver and reach 1,000 wins.”

Early in his career Nisonger did a lot of what is known as catch driving. That’s when an owner or trainer hires an independent driver to race.

While Nisonger enjoys racing, catch driving can be tough because earnings can vary drastically depending on the outcomes of races.

“It’s a really difficult lifestyle and job because you’re depending on an animal to make your living,” he said.

Now Nisonger has transitioned to training and driving his own horses. That provides a more stable salary and is much easier on his body.

“You get tired of getting banged up and hurt,” he said. “Training, it’s kind of like a regular job.”

Nisonger did work as a police officer for five or six years, he said, but he ultimately settled on making a living by working with horses. He still works a little as a resource officer but spends most of his time in the stables and on the track.

“I’ve had a pretty good career in this business,” he said.

As he’s gotten older Nisonger has been less willing to take as many risks in his harness racing career, he said. He’s had several significant injuries throughout his career but feels fortunate that they weren’t even worse.

“Luckily I was able to come out of most of them unscathed, but you still feel them,” Nisonger said. “It can be a tough job on your body doing this.”

Nisonger will return to his hometown of Greenville again this year for the Darke County Fair. It’s an annual ritual, he said, and one of his favorite events of the year as he gets to see his family and friends.

“It’s kind of fun coming home,” he said.

Nisonger doesn’t get to visit Greenville as often as he’d like so he cherishes the moments that he returns to Darke County. He devotes most of his time to his job and his two daughters, who have started riding and showing horses.

Practically every day Nisonger is doing something with horses, he said, and he envisions his life remaining like that. There have been tough moments, but he’s happy with his accomplishments and his career.

“It can be a very difficult job, but it also can be very rewarding,” Nisonger said.

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Jeff Nisonger, a 2000 Greenville graduate, races during the 2016 Darke County Fair harness racing program.
http://www.dailyadvocate.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/34/2017/08/web1_Jeff-Nisonger-WEB.jpgJeff Nisonger, a 2000 Greenville graduate, races during the 2016 Darke County Fair harness racing program. Kyle Shaner | The Daily Advocate

By Kyle Shaner

kshaner@dailyadvocate.com

Kyle Shaner may be reached at 937-569-4316. Follow me on Twitter @KShanerAdvocate or get updates on Facebook by searching Darke County Sports or Advocate 360. For more features online go to dailyadvocate.com.