For those of you who follow my blog religiously (and for my own distorted sense of self-purpose, I have to believe that there at least some of you who do, otherwise I'm just talking to thin air), you will recognise the format of the following post from the series entitled 'An interview with...' which I posted on a weekly basis during the winter
To any newcomers (particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, which is a 'market' I'm hoping to branch out into) - WELCOME! You've just stumbled upon the ramblings of a slightly crazy person who is totally passionate about harness racing, not just involving my own horses and at my local track, but across the rest of the UK and Ireland and indeed the wider world. If you find yourself forcibly bedbound for a long period of time, or imprisoned by the state/your overbearing parents/in somebody's basement (but with access to the internet), feel free to go back to the beginning and read all about my adventures with the Moose, Big Ears, Smarty and the gang. If not, don't worry about it. I know the curiosity will get you eventually.
In this particular post, I took the opportunity during a four and a half hour car journey from Edinburgh to Tir Prince to interview the man who currently holds the title of 'World Driving Champion': Dexter Dunn. The 26-year-old is New Zealand's leading driver, having driven 200+ winners in a season on five separate occasions, including the last three consecutive seasons. His cousin, friend, and 'favourite' trainer to drive for, Tom Bagrie, assured me that Dexter is a solid 80 winning drives clear of his nearest rival. Something to brag about you'd think, but in the time we spent with Dexter it became apparent that although confident and competitive, he's also pretty modest about his achievements. That in itself is a good enough reason for me to like the guy.
|Dexter & IB Coyote winning the VDM Fillies Final at Portmarnock (Graham Rees photo)|
For anybody who doesn't know you, how long have you been involved in the sport and where did it all start?
I've been involved in the sport my whole life, I was brought up with my father [Robert Dunn] training horses. He still trains, with my older brother Johnny the driver for his stable. I'm basically his second choice driver
We had horses when I was a child, and then for a spell we didn't and that didn't bother me. But then my dad got back into it and one day when I was about 11 or 12 he needed to take two horses to the beach to work out so he asked me to come along and help. It was a day off school, but from that moment I was hooked. That was the point at which I gave up my hopes of becoming an All Black and decided I wanted to be a driver.
I started driving when I was 17 so I've been racing for the last 10 years. I was second in my first race but managed to win on my tenth drive.
Which is the best horse you've ever driven?
Christen Me [Christian Cullen (NZ)-Splendid Dreams (NZ)-Dreamaway (USA)]. Just for his ability. He's won over NZ $2 million. He raced twice at 2, then raced late at 3 and won six from six. At 4 he won six Group 1 races. Two seasons ago he won NZ $1 million in a season. He holds 3 New Zealand records, went 1.50.4 at 4 and his record is 1.49.1. He's just unbelieveably quick.
Which horse, past or present that you haven't driven, would you like to drive and why?
Adore Me [Bettors Delight (USA)-Scuse Me (NZ)-B Gs Bunny (USA)] – because she was a freak. I drove against her and she smashed me all the time.
Adore Me is the fastest pacer outside of North America; as the Australasian mile record holder in 1.47.7, she amassed earnings of over NZ $1.6 million with 12 Group 1 wins to her name.
Do you prefer driving trotters or pacers?
I like driving pacers but to sit behind a really nice going trotter is a really nice feeling. You just can't beat the feeling of driving a beautifully-gaited trotter. That said, pacers go faster and are more reliable.
Who did, or do, you admire as a driver?
New Zealand driver Tony Herlihy – aka the Iceman, because he is! I watched him when I first started out, he sits so still in the cart. He's based on the North Island whereas I'm based on the South Island, but I've driven against him lots now.
Tony Herlihy has driven over 2000 winners and won almost every major harness racing event.
Which is your favourite track in New Zealand, and why?
Addington Raceway, Christchurch. It's close to home and it's actually a really good track. It's 1200m so approximately three quarters of a mile. It's one of the fairest tracks and it stages the New Zealand Cup Day, which is huge. It attracts around 20,000 people for that event.
If you could change one thing about the sport in New Zealand, what would it be?
More prize money!
No seriously, I'd like to see better handicapping. Quite often at home horses win 1/2/3/4 races and then they can't win anymore because our handicapper doesn’t really allow for them to continue being competitive, so we sell them to Australia. In Australia they have so much racing and so many different places to race that they can always find horses to suit a class. They also have a better system.
In your opinion, what is the biggest difference between racing in the UK and Ireland and New Zealand?
Field sizes – in New Zealand it's a maximum of 14 on all-weather track and 16 on grass. It might actually be 18 on the grass... (at which point Dexter and Tom descended into a debate about the maximum number, and then Tom wapped his phone out and showed me a video of his first training win with D D Trotter, driven by Dexter, in a field of what looked like 200 trotters racing on a bowling green. Grass track promoters in the UK, take note. Some of our fields aren't good enough!)
Is there anything about racing in the UK and Ireland that you would take back into Southern Hemisphere racing?
The culture! The sport in New Zealand is very professional, the general culture of the sport is also quite good but it’s divided into smaller groups rather than one big group.
How much do you consider information from a trainer when you drive?
1% (Tom says 0%).
No seriously, if I haven’t driven a horse before then quite a lot; but if I drive a horse all the time, if the trainer says it’s working good than that’s all I need to know. If you’re driving it all the time you know yourself how the horse is going.
Out of all the races you have won, which has been the most memorable? Which race would you like to win that you haven't already?
The most memorable would be The Miracle Mile in Australia. I won it in 2014 with Christen Me. It's worth A$750,000.
The race I would love to win would be The New Zealand Cup. I reckon I’ve drive in it 7 times and the best I've been is second. I was beaten by 1/2L, I got knocked on the straight...it was worth a million dollars that year as well!
How would you describe your racing style?
Depends really, probably quite aggressive (at which point Tom added that he'd call it erratic).
Where do you see yourself in the sport 10 years from now?
Just keeping driving, I'm not so fussed on training at the moment.
How many times have you competed in the World Driver Championship?
Twice. I won it in Australia in 2015 which makes me the reigning Champion; I also drove in America in 2011 as well. I'm heading to Canada in 2017 to defend my title.
What are your hobbies/interests outside of racing?
I play rugby, just socially. I'm a fan of the All Blacks and the Canterbury Crusaders. My favourite player has to be Dan Carter. I also like skiing. I'm pretty good, like I don’t fall over! But both of those are just hobbies. I'm really competitive and I hate losing, so that shows in my hobbies as well.
If you could visit one place in the world, where would it be and why?
Switzerland, because the girls I’ve seen so far from Swizterland are pretty good.
Actually, Sweden, for the Elitloppet AND the girls!
You're stranded on a desert island - what five things can't you live without?
Rum, coffee, smokes, a TV and Scarlett Johansson.
You're holding a dinner party for five famous guests (alive or dead) - who would they be?
Scarlett Johansson (obviously), George Clooney, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.
If you were invisible for a day, what would you do?
I'd sneak into the All Blacks changing room to hear the behind-the-scenes team talk. (Or see them naked. Whatever, Smarty and me won't judge. And we both thought you protested a little too much at that suggestion even in light of the Scarlett Johansson obsession...).
If you won the lottery, what would be the first thing you would spend your winnings on?
A year long holiday with my friends and a yacht to travel around on during that year long holiday.
What would you name your autobiography?
Double D. It's my nickname; everyone just started calling me it.
Which actor would play you in a film about your life?
When was the last time you got into trouble?
Last Tuesday at Tir Prince (August 2nd, Breeders Crown night), using my whip too much or something (our whip rules are as confusing for the rulebook-studying Smarty as they are for you pal).
Describe yourself in three words.
Competitive, friendly, nightowl.
Thank you, Double D, for the charming and enlightening interview. At times during the journey it was easy to forget that Dexter is a superstar, not only in his home country and the Southern Hemisphere, but across the globe. He's exceptionally laid back and takes an interest in what others have to say, even when it's potentially total rubbish (a lot of what I say is). When we arrived at our destination, I would have forgiven him for taking his bags and heading for the hills, never to be seen again by Smarty and I. Instead, we spent time with both Dexter and Tom in Ireland last weekend for the VDM, and I'd like to think that we'll see them again in the future, once I convince Smarty that a trip to New Zealand for Cup week was in fact his ingenious idea.
|Steering Johnny Camden to victory in the Breeders Crown 2YO Colts & Geldings (Graham Rees photo)|
|Driving Meldoon to win for trainer Michael O'Mahony at Tir Prince (Graham Rees photo)|
|A double on August 9th, winning with Lyons Eryl Hall (Graham Rees photo)|
Before I sign off, I appreciate that Dexter is the focal point of this post and indeed the main celebrity to visit the UK and Irish racing scene from NZ, but I would just like to take a minute to expand further on this character 'Tom', whose input in the above interview was actually far greater than I have been able to portray. Tom is a celebrity in his own right; my new publicist (he was lucky if he read half a post on my blog before telling Heather Vitale I was an amazing blogger - I could have actually pushed you off your bar stool) and advocate of my now world-famous sandwiches!
So for the benefit of anyone reading this who doesn't know who Tom is, he's a young trainer who, at the time of notching up his first winner (D D Trotter, driven by Dexter), has trained one winner, one second and one third from nine training starts. He's also as mad as a box of frogs which is why I thought he was an absolute delight to spend time with!
|Tom and D D Trotter|
Thank you both, again, for being such sports and for making the time fly on our journey. I sincerely hope this won't be the last time we meet.
Over and out,