by Chris Lomon
Bryson Dunning’s horse racing career began long before he earned his driver and trainer licenses.
Ask the 18-year-old from New Jersey when he first fell in love with standardbred racing and his first response is a hearty laugh.
“Since I can remember,” said Dunning. “I was probably around six or seven when my parents bought me a wheelbarrow, a tiny one, so that could I clean the stalls. You could only get about two scoops in that thing, but that wasn’t the point. I had a little pitchfork and a little wheelbarrow. I think I really fell in love with racing when I was around 10, that’s when I got serious about it.”
His affinity for horses and horses racing is in his DNA and family tree. His father, Jody, is a longtime successful trainer, having racked up more than 400 career wins. His mother, Christine Stafford, can trace her racing roots for decades.
“I’ve learned a lot from my dad over the years and on my mom’s side, I’m fourth generation,” said Dunning. “It’s been in the family for a while, so I decided to keep it going. My dad, the way he taught me was that I never had to come to the barn, but I always did choose to go to the barn, and now I’m sticking to do it.”
Dunning’s first driving win, four years ago, is a story in itself, an interesting yarn that took place on the Maryland fair circuit.
Then just 14, the aspiring reinsman partnered with Crocodile Rock, a veteran pacing son of American Ideal, at Pocomoke Fair, for his milestone drive.
“It was my first-ever drive,” said Dunning. “My dad and I, we never train in race bikes, so I had never sat in a race bike until two days before that. We took this older horse with us, which was basically our family pet. I don’t think he had won a race in the past two years or something like that, but we took him to Pocomoke. I sent him to the front and we won by seven lengths.”
What did that moment feel like?
“I thought, ‘Damn, is it this easy?’ But you realize that isn’t the case.”
Even so, Dunning’s love for racing didn’t diminish.
Thankfully, there have been other successes since that milestone score.
On Nov. 18 at Harrah’s Philadelphia, he celebrated another career first.
Dunning notched his first training victory when Real McCoy, with Simon Allard in the sulky, took a new mark of 1:57.3 for owner Dante Scattolini.
“I got my first horse when I was 16, but this is the first one in my name.”
The win was decidedly different than his first driving triumph. Getting away third, Real McCoy held a half-length advantage at the stretch call going on to win by the same margin.
“There were two horses, including him, who came off the last turn and were ahead by about 10 lengths. It was kind of a cool race. They were both right there until the very end when my horse was able to dig in and get the win. It was a good race for a first training win.”
Dunning will look to keep that momentum rolling.
“Right now, I have a barn of my own. I have four racehorses and one yearling. It’s a nice little start, but I’d like to grow. I’d rather have more quality than quantity. I found that out when I was growing up with it. If you have a lot of horses and some of them aren’t that good, you’ll end up paying it for at the end. I’d like to have a stable of maybe 10-15 horses, decent moneymakers, and keep growing. That’s my goal.”
Down the road, Dunning is hopeful of broadening the scope of his stable.
Seeing his name at or near the top of the standings is a future goal.
“Long term, I would like to become well known, just like everyone else in this business wants. That’s something I’ll continue to work hard at, to improve both as a driver and a trainer, to grow my stable and to get some good horses to work with. For being 18, I’m on my own, have my own barn and my own truck and trailer, so I’m happy with how things have gone. But I know that there is still a lot of work to be done.”
And not just at the racetrack.
Dunning’s day is far from over after the horses cross the wire in the final race of the night.
“You still have plenty to do, to make sure the horses are properly taken care of. Whether that’s their bandages or medicine, you need to take care of them. You have to stay on that program and sometimes it can be hard, especially when you come home around two or three in the morning. But that’s been my biggest thing… even if I come home and I’m dead tired, I still go to the barn and make sure everything is done so that they are okay. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep.”
Dunning has plenty of reason to wake up happy each day, including the backing he’s been getting from those who put the horses in his barn.
A winning attitude and an unwavering commitment to his job and to the horses has caught the eye of a few owners.
“I’ve been very lucky to have some owners who believe in me and want to help me grow. Dante, who I had my first training win for, he’s trying to help me grow. He’s very supportive and it’s nice to have someone like that on your side.”
While the days of filling up a tiny wheelbarrow at his father’s barn are long gone, Dunning’s connection to the racing world is as strong as it has ever been, his dreams for long-term success front of mind.
And as for those moments cleaning out stalls as wide-eyed youngster, it’s almost as though he never left.
“Ever since those times when I was a kid pushing that wheelbarrow and holding that pitchfork, I’ve been at the barn almost every day. It’s where I’ve always wanted to be.”