A conversation with Dexter Dunn
By Ken Weingartner of the USTA
Dexter Dunn is only 28 years old, but his accomplishments as a harness racing driver belie his age. The New Zealand native, who arrived in the U.S. last week to spend the next several weeks (at least) competing in North America, won his first race a dozen years ago and has continued to accumulate victories at a record pace in his homeland.
A native of Christchurch, Dunn led New Zealand’s premiership in wins for 10 consecutive years from 2008 through 2017. During that span, he won at least 200 races on six occasions and twice finished with 199. He was the only New Zealand driver to win at least 200 races in a season prior to this year, when he saw his record of 229 victories toppled by friend Blair Orange. Orange finished 2017-18 with 232 wins, followed by Dunn with 213.
Dunn already ranks fifth in New Zealand history with 2,225 wins. Tony Herlihy is No. 1 with 3,456. Dunn was the youngest driver to both 1,000 and 2,000 wins, and the youngest, at the age of 18, to win a Group 1 race in New Zealand. In 2015, Dunn represented his country in the World Driving Championship and drove off with the trophy.
Harness racing is a family affair for the Dunns. Dexter’s father, Robert, is among the top trainers in wins in New Zealand history, with 1,374, and last year set a career high for purses with $1.37 million while finishing second in victories in the premiership. Dexter’s brother, John, also is an accomplished driver, with nearly 1,000 wins. He has finished in the premiership’s top five each of the past six seasons.
Dunn was invited to drive in the U.S. this summer by trainer Chris Ryder, a longtime family friend. Dunn drove in the States in 2011 as part of an extended visit that included participating in the U.S.-hosted World Driving Championship and in Canada in 2017, again in the WDC. He finished fourth both times. For his career in North America, Dunn has won nine of 141 races and $174,266 in purses.
So far this visit, Dunn has raced at Yonkers and Harrah’s Philadelphia. He drives again tonight at Yonkers and tomorrow at Philly.
Dunn spoke recently with Ken Weingartner, the media relations manager for the U.S. Trotting Association, about his career, proudest moments, visiting the U.S. last year to play rugby, and another recent Stateside arrival, New Zealand-bred champion pacer Lazarus.
KW: Your dad is an accomplished horseman, so how old were you when you started working with the horses?
DD: When I was young, my dad stopped training for about four or five years, probably when I was about (ages) 6 to 11. So in that period, I really had nothing to do with horses. Then he started training again when I was about 11. When he first started back, he just had a couple horses. He got me out of school one day because he needed me to go with him to the beach, he was taking them to the beach, to work the horses. From that day on, I was back into it. From then on it was just horses, horses, horses.
KW: Working the horses on the beach has to be pretty cool.
DD: Yeah, it’s nice. I think the horses enjoy it too. It’s good for them. They walk in the water afterwards.
KW: Is this what you’ve wanted to do from then on?
DD: It gets in your blood. Once you get attached to horses it’s pretty hard to get away from it. I left school when I was 16. We took some horses to Auckland for six weeks from Christchurch and then I got a job in Australia for three months and ended up staying there for another year.
KW: How old were you when you started driving?
DD: I was 17. My first win was in Australia. I spent six months driving over there and then came home.
KW: Have you ever had another job?
DD: I was a milk boy when I was a kid. (Laughs.) I would jump off the truck and deliver the milk bottles to the door. It was good after-school money.
KW: What made you decide to come to the U.S. now?
DD: I spent three months here seven years ago. The World Driving Championship was here and I came over two months before. I really enjoyed it. It’s always been on my mind, but you get back home and you’re busy most of the year and in your routine. Chris went home a few months ago for his niece’s wedding and we started talking about it again. I woke up one day, I was on my way to qualifiers, and I decided I was going to come over. That was it. Why not? I’m not getting any younger. If I’m going to do it, now is probably the right time.
KW: What is your plan?
DD: I’ve got no set plan. I’ll see how it goes. I want to do a little bit of looking around too. Like, I’ve never been to the Little Brown Jug. Whether I’m driving or not, I want to go and have a look at it. I want to work and do the driving, but it’s a little bit of a break from racing at home too. There’s no set plan when I’m going back. If I go home, it would probably have to be in mid-October. We’ll see how things go.
KW: Would you stay for the Breeders Crown? That’s not until the end of October.
DD: If I’m here until the Breeders Crown, I’m probably not going home. Our big meeting, we have New Zealand Cup Week, and that’s the second week of November. That’s our biggest week of the year, really. If I’m at the Breeders Crown, I’m missing Cup time. I’m pretty lucky. I’ve got all my supporters at home and then I come over here and Chris and (his wife) Nicola are looking after me, putting me on horses. It’s a pretty lucky situation. Real lucky.
KW: You’ve come over here, and I’m sure you want to show people what you can do, so is it difficult to be patient and not want to over-drive horses or anything like that?
DD: It’s probably a little bit hard, I think. You just have to let things happen. It’s probably hard because I sort of haven’t come over here unnoticed. But I don’t worry too much about things like that. I try not to put too much pressure on myself; it’s not the way I am. I knew coming over here it wasn’t going to be easy. You can’t come over and just expect to be driving good ones. But I was looking forward to it. I’m really looking forward to a new challenge, something different. You have the same routine day in and day out and this is almost like starting again.
KW: What is the biggest challenge?
DD: Knowing the horses. You have to study up. You can read the lines, but you don’t really know much about the horses or the competition. You have to pick up on it pretty quick. But everyone over here is really good, they look after you.
KW: Will you do more studying?
DD: I’ve always been quite keen on studying the fields, but I’ll probably do more. At home I know all the horses, so I could probably do a field a lot quicker than I could here.
KW: Is the driving style here a lot different than home?
DD: It’s different, but the gap has closed a lot. Our racing at home, the times are just dropping readily. It’s kind of that up-front tempo. It’s hard to come from the back now. You used to be able to come from last and win a race, but now it’s changed a lot.
KW: How would you describe yourself as a driver?
DD: It’s hard to say. It’s really horses for courses, I guess. Competitive is probably the top one.
KW: Do you turn the page quickly or carry things with you?
DD: When I was younger I was really hard on myself. I’d go home and think about a bad race and it would worry me. But over the years, it’s completely gone. I think if you can’t turn the page it’s bad. The minute you scuff up, you know and everyone else knows, so you just turn the page and move on to the next race. You win the next one and it’s forgotten about.
KW: What are you most looking forward to over here?
DD: The challenge. And I know a lot of people, I’ve met a lot of people over here from over the years, so it will be good to catch up with them. I just want to have a good time.
KW: With all you’ve accomplished so far in your career, what are you most proud of?
DD: I think my biggest achievement was in 2009. I won the Canterbury Sportsman of the Year. I beat a fella named Richie McCaw. He was the All Blacks (national team) captain for two World Cup wins. Probably on the top of the list of New Zealand heroes, he’s it for playing rugby. He’s a hero to me. To beat him in that was pretty special. Winning the World Driving Championship was cool too. That’s right up there as well.
KW: What do you most enjoy about the sport?
DD: The people. I love the people. I’ve driven in six different countries now and everywhere you go you meet great people. You really do. I’d never had met these people in any other job. I probably wouldn’t have gotten out of New Zealand. And then winning, of course.
KW: Was it tough to see your record for wins (in a season) broken?
DD: No. (Blair Orange) is one of my closest mates. It’s OK. Change is good. I didn’t mind.
KW: Growing up, did you play other sports?
DD: I played rugby my whole life. I was still playing last year. My team, the West Melton Warthogs, went to Aspen, Colorado, in September of last year and played in a rugby tournament there (Aspen Ruggerfest). That was really cool. That was probably the experience of a lifetime, going there and playing. And Aspen is a beautiful place.
It’s good to play rugby. It’s a different group of people and you can get away from horses and horse talk for that little period of time. It’s good to freshen up. I didn’t play this year because I was busy. My body doesn’t like it much when I play. You always wake up on a Sunday morning, it’s a good hurt, but it’s sore. Your body doesn’t bounce back like it does when you’re a teenager.
KW: Well, it’s great for us to see you come over here and drive. First Lazarus arrives, and now you.
DD: I’m sure Lazarus will make more of an impression over here than I will. He’s an awesome horse. I had to race against him a bunch of times, which stunk because he was so good. He was always so hard to get past. You might think you had him beat at the top of the stretch, but by the end of it he’d get away from you again. I don’t think he’s ever lost when he’s been in front in his whole career. He is a champion horse.
KW: Did you ever drive him?
DD: No. I got to pet him once.