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An Aussie & A Kiwi

Trot Feature - Andrew McCarthy & Dexter Dunn

One grew up in Australia, the other in New Zealand. Their stories are different, but at the same time, the trail that eventually led them both here is quite similar.

Andrew McCarthy and Dexter Dunn may have come from Down Under, but today they both sit right near the top when it comes to North American driver standings. By Debbie Little.

Even though they started out Down Under, both Andrew McCarthy and Dexter Dunn have ended up at the top of the heap.

Andrew McCarthy and Dexter Dunn were born over 2,200 kms apart, in different countries, but followed a surprisingly similar path to success with a slightly altered timeline.

Both were born into the business.

Andy, the son of John and Narelle McCarthy, grew up with older brother Luke and younger brother Todd, on a horse farm in Bathurst, Australia, three hours west of Sydney.

Robert and Rose Dunn’s youngest son Dexter grew up with older brother John, in Christchurch, New Zealand, also on a horse farm.

As youngsters, they each thought about doing something else, but ultimately realized that the horses were in their blood.

“I had thought about being a mechanic and realized I haven’t got the patience to do that. Then I was really into rugby and realized I wasn’t going to be big enough to do that. I always had a big passion for the horses, but once I turned about 14 or 15, I knew that was the path I was going to go down,” said McCarthy.

Like McCarthy, a young Dunn also thought about playing rugby.

“I was going to be an All Black (New Zealand’s national team) rugby player when I was younger. Most New Zealand kids grow up playing rugby and are going to be an All Black. It’s a pipedream in your head, but it went out the window pretty quickly when size was a problem and I wasn’t good enough,” said Dunn.

Once they settled on harness racing as a profession, they each had driving success in their native countries, but their reasons for coming to America were clearly different.

For McCarthy, a chance meeting with fellow Aussie Noel Daley led him to the States.

“I was 21 [in 2007] and just kind of bored, and I happened to meet Noel Daley,” said McCarthy. “He was back in Australia for Christmas one year and I met him through a mutual friend and expressed my want to come to the States and check it out... he offered me a job and a place to stay.

“Originally, I came over to learn how to be a better blacksmith. I would shoe 90 percent of dad’s horses. I just figured it would be a good trade to pick up. I dropped out of school early to do the horses and it was something to fall back on if the racing side of it didn’t work out for me.”

Daley knew Andy’s family and when Andy’s older brother Luke had made a trip to the U.S., he had also stayed with Daley.

Andy lived in Daley’s house and worked for him doing a number of jobs at the barn.

“He was a better driver and blacksmith than he was a groom,” said Daley with a laugh. “He is a worker... the whole family are workers.

“I think Took Hanover was the first decent horse I put him on, and he won in 1:49 with him at the Meadowlands, when that meant something, 10 years ago. And that gave him a little bit of a kick along.”

McCarthy is very thankful for all the opportunities that Daley and other trainers gave him when he first came over.

“I did want to drive, but I didn’t expect to drive,” said McCarthy. “I wanted to just get one picture on the wall. I wanted to win one race to take a win picture back to Australia and say I’d won a race in America.

“In 2009, I quit working for Noel and I just went out driving. As far as getting good catch drives and people being willing to put me up on good horses in good races, that did take a long time, and I don’t blame them because when I first came over I had a lot to learn. It did take a little while but I’m glad I stuck it out.”

Dunn didn’t decide to make his move to the States until he was older and more established, but he also had a fellow countryman looking out for him.

“In 2011, I represented New Zealand in the World Driving Championship, which was in America, so I came over three months early and stayed with Chris Ryder and did a little bit of driving,” said Dunn. “And then, obviously, I went back home, but I always had it in my head that I wanted to give it a go.

“Finally, I actually woke up one day and I was on my way to qualifiers and I just decided I was going to come and that was it.”

It was in August of 2018 that Dunn decided to have his go at the U.S.

Ryder is good friends with Dunn’s dad and watched Dexter grow up. Chris had hoped that Dexter would one day choose to make the move.

“Dexter came here and Nifty [Norman] and myself and Mark Harder were quite prepared to use him, which was a help to him, obviously,” said Ryder. “But as the year has proven, it’s been to our advantage and what Dexter’s done is surprising to everybody, but not to me.”

Ryder, Norman, Harder and Brett Pelling were all born in New Zealand while Daley and Ross Croghan are natives of Australia. The expats have worked for, and looked out for each other over the years, and are doing their part to support their Down Under drivers.

“My take on the two guys is they are two great drivers,” said Pelling. “Without the support like Andy had with Noel Daley getting him going and with Dexter coming over here and Richard Norman and Chris Ryder and myself [it would be tougher for them].”

“We are in the upper group of trainers and we’re giving them drives on our best horses, and they’re humble to understand that. I think the most important thing to me as a trainer is hopefully having the same guy driving a horse consistently and getting the right feedback.”

With regards to feedback, the trainers believe that both McCarthy and Dunn are students of the game and are willing to put the time in to be better at what they do.

“Andy’s a good horseman,” said Daley. “[He] can walk into your barn, and even though he might have four Breeders Crown winners, if I needed him to, he could shoe a horse for me. He’s a worker. He can give you input. Not being derogatory about the catch drivers, but some of them are better than others with being able to supply you with information, but [Andy’s] done the whole gamut. He’s reliable. What you see is what you get.

“Andy’s brother [Luke] is one of the best drivers and trainers over there and he said it doesn’t matter where [Dexter] goes. It doesn’t take him any time. He adjusts to what he’s got to do. He works things out. He’s obviously got great hands.”

In addition to the support McCarthy and Dunn get from their homeland trainers, they also support each other.

McCarthy thinks that Dunn’s sheer talent sets him apart, while Dunn would describe McCarthy as a legend and thinks his relaxed nature is what makes him so good.

“When I first came over, I lived with Chris Ryder, and then Andy and his family went back to Australia for the winter, so I went and stayed down at his place,” said Dunn. “I looked after his place in South Jersey and then they came back I didn’t move out. I just stayed. So I lived with them for a while and then I got a place down in that same township as Andy.”

They also both rely on support from their families.

McCarthy is married to Katrina, who was born in America, but her parents and most of her siblings are from Australia. They have two boys: Finn (five), who is very fond of walking around with a whip, and Olly, who’s three.

McCarthy makes yearly trips - in the wintertime when it’s slow - back home to Australia to see his family. He admits these trips will get tougher as his children start attending school, but at least we now live in an electronic age.

“Thank God for FaceTime,” said McCarthy. “We get to see [family] quite a lot. Mom and dad are always calling up. Mainly, I think they’re calling up to see their grandkids rather than their actual kid.

“The first nine, 10 years I was over here I always said, ‘I’m going to end up back in Australia, I want to go home one day’. But I’m not too sure anymore. I’m not as homesick as I used to be. I think North America is a great place to be and I really think that’s why there are a lot of foreigners here, because it is the land of dreams and you can accomplish a lot here if you’re willing to work.”

Dunn doesn’t consider himself to be a person who gets homesick, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss his family.

“I have a daughter [Mila] that lives in New Zealand. The hardest part is not seeing her, but she’s been over here twice since I’ve been here and I’m going to go spend Christmas in Scotland with her, so that’s going to be cool,” said Dunn. “I had a cool moment with her. She’s 4 and when she was over I won the Art Rooney with Bettors Wish at Yonkers and I got to have her in the photo. It was a pretty special moment.”

Dunn’s parents have also both come to visit him. His dad came over for Hambletonian weekend and stayed for a couple of weeks, and his mother was at Lexington for the final week of Grand Circuit and then came back to New Jersey with him and spent another week there.

McCarthy’s brother Todd also came for a visit the week of the Breeders Crown, which made the experience much more special as Andy won a total of four Crown trophies that weekend.

“I’d never won a Breeders Crown before and then I won with Ramona Hill,” said McCarthy. “It felt terrific. And to get the job done for some terrific owners and Tony [Alagna], it was great.

“To get that second one straight away, it was the very next race. It felt surreal. I had my little brother Todd there. He’d come out to the winner’s circle and it felt like he was just as pumped up as I was. It was a special moment to have some family there and get the job done.”

McCarthy’s second Crown victory was with Reflect With Me, who is also trained by Alagna. Dunn also scored his first Crown victory on that same night with Amigo Volo, who is trained by Nifty Norman.

“It was a buzz,” said Dunn. “It was really exciting, especially doing it for Nifty. I’ve had a lot of highlights in my career but that one would be right up there. It’s a great place to race over here. I love it. I’ve had a really busy year but a thoroughly enjoyable year.”

The following night McCarthy won two more as the Pelling-trained Caviart Ally upset Shartin N. His final Crown victory was with Dancin Lou, trained by Tahnee Camilleri - an Australian - who nosed out Bettors Wish - driven by Dunn. About 50 meters past the wire, McCarthy and Dunn exchanged a fist bump.

Both drivers said that growing up, their father was their hero, but that they each also had a driver that they looked up to.

“Gavin Lang is one of the best drivers I’ve ever seen,” said McCarthy. “They call him ‘The Iceman.’ He’s such a cool, patient driver. Never over-used the whip. It seemed like he had three days to make any kind of decision in a race. He was one guy that I really enjoyed watching.

“Just the way he drove a horse. He’d never abuse a horse. He rarely used a whip and I think every kid should look up to somebody along that line.”

For Dunn, it was a driver named Ricky May.

“He won seven New Zealand Cups, which is like winning seven Hambletonians,” said Dunn. “He was always cool, calm and collected as a driver and I always looked up to him.”

When asked if they thought about moving back home one day, not surprisingly, McCarthy and Dunn had similar answers.

“Depending on what happens with my career, I’m hoping that I’ll be here for a while,” said McCarthy. “I still love the fairy tale of ending up back there, but I’m just going to keep riding the wave until it breaks.”

Dunn had a comparable response. “I think if I was going back home it wouldn’t be to be a horse driver,” he said. “I think as far as my driving career goes, I want to be here for as long as it lasts.”

This feature originally appeared in the December issue of TROT Magazine. Subscribe to TROT today by clicking the banner below.

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