Hightstown, NJ — Dexter Dunn wasted little time in making a name for himself in North America. In his first full season of competing in the U.S. and Canada, the 30-year-old New Zealand native won 460 races and more than $12 million in purses on his way to being named Driver of the Year by the U.S. Harness Writers Association. He ranked eighth in wins and third in earnings among all drivers on the continent.
Among the highlights for Dunn were sitting behind Dan Patch Award-winning 3-year-old male pacer Bettor’s Wish and piloting Manchego to the fastest mile ever by a female trotter, 1:49 at Red Mile.
Dunn will receive his award Feb. 23 at the Dan Patch Awards banquet in Orlando, Fla.
“It was a massive thrill,” Dunn recently told Racing from the Meadowlands co-host Dave Little on the Big M’s In the Sulky broadcast. “It’s really a dream come true. I just had a great year with the horses I got to drive. The support I got was huge. It was a big thrill.”
Dunn came to the U.S. during the summer of 2018 at the invitation of trainer Chris Ryder, a longtime family friend. A native of Christchurch, Dunn led New Zealand’s premiership in wins for 10 consecutive years from 2008 through 2017 and his 2,225 wins ranked fifth in history there.
Upon his arrival stateside, Dunn picked up two wins on the 2018 Grand Circuit, with Ryder’s Stonebridge Soul in a division of the Bluegrass Stakes and trainer Richard “Nifty” Norman’s Southwind Avenger in the Valley Victory Stakes.
Last year, he was a major player on the Grand Circuit, where his wins included Breeders Crown finals with Norman’s Amigo Volo and trainer Nancy Takter’s Manchego, as well as the Fan Hanover with trainer Tony Alagna’s Treacherous Reign. Counting restricted stakes, Dunn won 25 races worth at least $100,000 in 2019.
“I got lucky,” Dunn said. “I got, obviously, great support from Chris Ryder and Nifty Norman when I got here. They gave me a chance early on and put me on some horses with ability and got me going. I guess it was a snowball effect from there. I picked up other ones and it sort of just ran on from there. It was a surprising season, I didn’t expect it whatsoever, but it was great and thoroughly enjoyable.”
Bettor’s Wish was Dunn’s top horse, winning 13 of 19 races and never finishing worse than second on his way to leading harness racing in purses with $1.64 million. He colt won the Carl Milstein Memorial, Art Rooney Pace, Matron Stakes, a division of the Tattersalls Pace, and the Kentucky Sire Stakes championship. He finished second in the North America Cup, Meadowlands Pace, Cane Pace, Messenger Stakes, Breeders Crown, and against older horses in the TVG Series Open Pace championship.
The colt was named the sport’s best 3-year-old male pacer in Dan Patch Award voting and is a top contender for Pacer of the Year and Horse of the Year, both of which will be announced at the awards banquet next month.
“The horse is once-in-a-lifetime for someone like me to be able to drive,” Dunn said. “He had an unbelievable year. He’s just so tough and game. He had some pretty tough runs, but he bounced back week after week. I almost feel sorry for him. I think if I had drove him a bit smarter in some of those big races, he would have won them. But he was just awesome all year.”
To watch Little’s complete In the Sulky interview with Dunn, which also covers topics such as his former rugby aspirations, win in the 2015 World Driving Championship, and the differences in racing in New Zealand and North America, click here.