by Ken Weingartner
Dunkster never wanted to be caught. Not in his stall, not in a field, not on the racetrack.
It was on the racetrack that this trait proved most valuable. Dunkster won 89 lifetime races — which puts him in a tie for eighth place among all trotters in North American harness racing history — and earned $894,320 in a career that spanned from 2001 through 2011.
On Jan. 21, Dunkster will be inducted into Ohio’s Standardbred Hall of Fame at the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association banquet at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Columbus (Worthington).
“He knew what winning was,” said Kurt Sugg, who trained and drove Dunkster in the majority of the horse’s 287 races, “and he liked to do it.”
Dunkster’s most lucrative victory came in the 2006 Dygert Memorial at Hawthorne Race Course for a purse of $105,000. Sugg and Dunkster made a three-wide move at the three-quarter pole and then held off hard-charging Dink Adoo in a stretch battle to win by a head in 1:54.
“Ryan Anderson was driving Dink Adoo and they were coming at (Dunkster) so fast it looked like they were going to go right by,” Sugg said. “When that horse got up to Dunkster’s withers, he wore an open bridle, he turned his head and he fought that horse off. Hawthorne is a very long stretch and he fought him off the whole way. He never got any closer than that. He just had a willingness to win.”
Sugg never expected Dunkster to enjoy such a successful and lengthy career. Dean Davis, who passed away at the age of 82 in September, bought five-month-old Dunkster and his mom, Rosemary T, for $5,000 at a sale in Ohio in 1999. When Sugg went to pick up Dunkster as a yearling at Spring Run Farm, he had a good deal of difficulty catching the young horse. It was the start of a trend that continued throughout Dunkster’s career.
“There were quite a few times the night before his race I’d have about 10 people out in the pasture field trying to catch him so he could go race the next day,” Sugg said. “I think he enjoyed the pasture life. Even though he was a very good racehorse, he liked to be outside with the rest of the horses. He got plenty of extra exercise out there running from me. He never did train very often. When he was racing, he would go on the (exerciser) in the morning and then be in the field the rest of the day.”
At ages 2 and 3, Dunkster often went off stride because he hit his knees. Sugg tried knee boots, then knee spreaders, only to discover by chance that the trotter preferred to go without either.
“I think I had him over-equipped for 2-1/2 years of his life,” Sugg said, laughing. “As a 4-year-old I was racing him at Northfield. I was by myself, taking care of him and racing him. I had the knee spreaders and they were such a pain to put on and take off by yourself, so I decided to leave them off that night. He raced unbelievable, maybe the best he ever raced.
“From then on, he was a really good horse. It’s like I finally let him be what he wanted to be, and he said, ‘OK, I’m going to go good now.’ He totally changed.”
Dunkster won seven of 12 races the remainder of the year, and then won 50 times in the ensuing four seasons, including a world-record 1:54.2 triumph at Northfield in 2004. He was an Ohio Sire Stakes champion at age 4, a four-time Scarlet and Gray champion, and finished second to Dan Patch Award-winner Sand Vic in the 2006 American-National Stakes.
He finished his career with victories at 21 different racetracks and competed in nine different states plus Ontario.
“He was an iron horse,” Sugg said. “I’ve never had a horse in the Hall of Fame, so that’s pretty special to get him there, to know that I had a little something to do with it. He was an all-around good horse.”
Dunkster has enjoyed his retirement days at Spring Run Farm, and the horse was still on his toes in the field the last time Sugg visited.
“You couldn’t catch him,” Sugg said.