In Driver of Year voting, Tetrick is a victim of his own greatness

by Brett Sturman

Coming as somewhat of a surprise, the highly accomplished New Zealand-import Dexter Dunn has been voted 2019 Driver of the Year by the USHWA over the seasons leading money-earner, Tim Tetrick.

My initial thought was that Tetrick should have won the award hands-down, but after a more exhaustive review into the accomplishments between the two, I can at least see the case made for Dunn. By any objective measure, Dunn outpaced even the wildest expectations for him in his first full season driving in North America en route to a truly brilliant and largely unforeseen year. But while the degree to which Dunn surpassed expectations was no doubt an attributing factor to him winning Driver of the Year, those same expectations are an Achilles heel to Tetrick.

A four-time Driver of the Year winner, Tetrick hasn’t won the award since 2013 despite perennially regarded as one of the sport’s bests – if not, the best – drivers. For the last two consecutive years now, Tetrick has been denied the honor despite boasting the highest earnings and with that, the most accolades.

Granted, earnings shouldn’t necessarily be the determining factor for driver of the year. In fact, in a column around this time last year, I wrote in support of Aaron Merriman for driver of the year despite finishing third in earnings (same as Dunn this year). Even though he was close to $3 million behind Tetrick in earnings, Merriman set the unprecedented record of winning over 1,000 races and over $10 million in purses. A season like that may never happen again for anyone.

For Tetrick, his earnings of $15.6 million this year may be one of the best in the sport’s history, but it’s not unprecedented. He shattered the prior record with an $18 million season back in 2007, so his total for this year doesn’t carry the same unique angle that Merriman had last year or that Dunn had this year. Because of his own greatness, the expectations are such for Tetrick that no matter how well he does, he can’t come up with the same storybook plotline as others because he’s already been there and done that.

In a way, it’s fascinating that the 2019 Driver of the Year came down to Dunn and Tetrick because of the parallels that they share. Both were highly accomplished at early ages in their young careers, with Dunn already sitting fifth in all-time wins in New Zealand and Tetrick currently in eighth all-time in North America. Just as Tetrick amazed over 10 years ago when he changed the Mid-Atlantic harness racing landscape by relocating east, Dunn has transitioned seamlessly against the sport’s best drivers in a different hemisphere.

Dunn has obviously been an extraordinary story this year, but what do the numbers say?

Tetrick was exceptional this year and his earnings of $15.6 million is over $2 million better than second-finisher Yannick Gingras and $3.6 million more than Dunn. It’s not just earnings, either. Tetrick has a UDRS of 0.381, an extremely rare number to see for someone that day-in and day-out competes among the best other drivers in the sport. No driver this year that earned over $2.2 million had a UDRS that approached Tetrick’s. Dunn’s UDRS was 0.285.

Where Dunn picks up a ton of traction is with the later season stakes, Grand Circuit and Breeders Crown wins that he was able to amass.

Dunn had four horses that he won at least two major stakes races with this year, including Treacherous Reign (2), Amigo Volo (4), Bettors Wish (4) and Manchego (4). Bettors Wish and Manchego are near cinches to win year-end honors for their division, with Bettors Wish slated to be a likely runner-up for Horse of the Year. I’m guessing that Amigo Volo will lose out to Real Cool Sam for 2-year-old colt trotter of the year, but Amigo Volo did beat that rival in the Breeders Crown (with Dunn in tow) and still rates an outside chance to take down that award.

Dunn should also be given special credit towards his drives on Manchego. Manchego was the best horse in training in the second half of the season and it coincided with Dunn picking up the drive on her. Beginning with a 1:50.1 rout in the Dayton Trotting Derby followed by a 1:49 world record mile in the Allerage at Lexington, Dunn piloted Manchego all the way through to her Breeders Crown win. Dunn’s total earnings in races defined by the USTA as “Major Races” totaled $4.3 million, with $3.1 million of that coming from his core four, Treacherous Reign, Amigo Volo, Bettors Wish and Manchego.

Though he did not win any Breeders Crown races, Tetrick’s earnings across the year’s major races was $5.3 million and he was the driver all season for the presumptive Horse of the Year, Shartin. The way he drove Shartin throughout the season was at times masterful, and much of that mare’s success is Tetrick’s success.

In addition to Shartin who had seven wins in major stakes races as part of her $1 million season, Tetrick also racked up multiple major stakes wins with Guardian Angel (2), Lyons Sentinel (2), Sherry Lyn’s Lady (2), Green Manalishi (3), and Stonebridge Soul (3). Tetrick also piloted the big upset of Crystal Fashion over Atlanta in the $450,000 Hambletonian Maturity. With Shartin likely to take home Horse of the Year, Lyon’s Sentinel also seems more likely than not to win the 2-year-old pacing filly division.

Going by all the facts, figures and numbers alone, it seems like Tetrick had compiled a resume that probably should have gotten him there. Actually, let me put it this way: If you took two drivers at random and assigned them the numbers of Tetrick and Dunn, the driver assigned Tetrick’s numbers would win every time. And that’s where Tetrick’s disadvantage comes in.

Take nothing away from Dunn, as his dream season is absolutely something that warrants recognition. And as the numbers show, Dunn made a very strong showing for himself in some of the year’s big races. Though by a narrower margin than I first thought, Tetrick accomplished more. With wide margins to his favor in the earnings and UDRS categories, Tetrick was deserving. Even by his standards.