America roots on Dunkin

Nick Clegg talks about how he came to own the fan-favorite gelding.

by Chris Lomon

Nick Clegg remembers the moment as if it were yesterday.

Two years ago, on April 10, to be exact, the longtime horseman put a bay gelding’s nose inches from the starter car gate for a qualifying race at Northfield Downs in Ohio.

He wasn’t expecting much from the pacer known as Dunkin.

“On my birthday, April 10, two years ago, I trained him in 2:39,” Clegg said. “He absolutely would not go. I kept telling my wife [trainer Betty Clegg] that he wasn’t much and that we didn’t have anything to work with.”

Nick felt the same way two months later, once again at Northfield.

“When June came along and everyone else was qualifying their babies, I didn’t have any desire to qualify this guy,” he said. “Betty did not come to the paddock with me; I took him to the stable at Northfield.

“He had the inside post and he kind of fell to the front. Going into the second turn, he made a speed break — he was just being childish — and I got him out of harm’s way.”

And then something most unexpected happened.

The immature rookie took off like a shot, much to the surprise of the man holding the reins.

“I got him going again, and he went an eighth of a mile in 12 seconds,” Nick said.

Nick could hardly contain his excitement or believe what he said to his wife after the qualifier.

“I came back and told Betty, ‘This is the best horse we have ever had,’” he said. “She looked at me and said, ‘What?!’ Eight minutes ago, I had told her I didn’t want to qualify him and now I am telling her that.”

Little did they know what was soon to be in store for themselves and the horse they had purchased for the modest sum of $7,000.

The genesis of their success story was borne on Nov. 10, 2021, at the Harrisburg Yearling Sale.

Nick, in search of yearlings to add to the couple’s racing band, had purchased five yearlings the year prior.

He was hopeful, yet realistic about his chances of finding a diamond-in-the-rough type at the annual Harrisburg sale.

“I wanted one more from Harrisburg,” Nick said. “I told my buddy Jordan McKay that I wanted to get one from there at a good price. I think there were five Ohio-bred horses in the sale, but you don’t get them cheap at Harrisburg.

“I told Jordan that if any of them go cheap, especially this guy, Dunkin, buy him for me. I thought Dunkin would go for $30,000. I told Jordan that I could go as high as $7,500, but I would much rather go for $4,000. He laughed because they don’t go that low at that sale.”

Dunkin did. For $7,000.

“I walked into the kitchen and told Betty, ‘We bought another baby for seven grand,’” Nick said. “She put her hands on her face and started crying. We don’t have that money to buy another baby, but something felt right.”

That intuition would prove to be a bull’s-eye.

At 2, Dunkin mostly competed on the fair and Buckeye Stallion Series circuit, picking up six wins in 19 starts with $47,736 in earnings.

“He won a lot of races at the fairs as a 2-year-old,” Nick said. “He’s so big and he wore tiny hobbles. He had a terrible gait, and he was just not good. He won some races, but he wasn’t overly special.”

That opinion would soon change.

Dunkin’s first win of 2023 came at Northfield Park in the conditioned ranks on March 21, 2023. He then won his next three engagements and was on the board twice before a jump-up in class.

After some hard-luck results against salty competition, the Cleggs opted to bring Dunkin to the Paulding (OH) fair for a confidence boost.

The result was a 3 ¾-length romp in 1:59.2.

It would only get better from there.

In the later stages of his 3-year-old campaign, Dunkin reeled off 11 straight races, including a leg of the Buckeye Stallion Series and Ohio State Fair at Scioto Downs.

Dunkin was sent off at 74-1 in the $40,000 final on Oct. 15, 2022.

Nick drove him as if he was 1-9.

“In the final, Betty asked if she should just head back to the barn because he supposedly had no chance,” he said. “Have you ever had a vision where you already know what is going to happen? That’s what I had. I didn’t care what drivers or what horses were there that day; I knew he was going to win. No question about it. I told Betty she should stay here for this one.”

Nick and Dunkin crossed the wire a head in front of 1-5 favorite Hesa Bully.

“After the race, when he won, to see how happy Betty was… you can’t buy that,” he said. “A million dollars can’t purchase that.”

Following the 11-race win streak, Dunkin won five of his next seven starts and was fourth in both the Ohio Sires Stakes final at Scioto Downs and the Ohio Breeders Championship at Delaware (OH).

He earned $202,208 in his 3-year-old season, putting up 21 victories in 40 starts. Those 21 triumphs earned him the title of winningest horse in North America for the year.

The little horse that once couldn’t, now could.

“He totally gets it,” Nick said. “He totally understands the sport. In his mind, he knows that he has to go around the track fast, he needs to beat other horses, and then he wants to come home and eat and be loved; there is nothing else to him. There is also the fact that he never gets tired. Never.”

Dunkin also knows when he’s bested the competition.

“He knows when he’s won,” Nick said. “He’s done it so much, so he knows what that means. When he loses, he’s pissed.”

On Jan. 3, Dunkin began his trek back to the races in a qualifier, scoring an impressive victory after getting the perfect trip.

It was a welcome change of pace for Nick.

“I never disliked him, but there wasn’t anything early on that said he was going to be even mediocre,” he said.

In this instance, Betty knows best.

“Betty loved this guy long before he became the horse that he is,” Nick said.

A horse that has become a darling of racing fans throughout the U.S. Midwest and beyond.

That popularity prompted a t-shirt collaboration between the Cleggs and Kindness Creates Studio and Boutique.

“People do love him,” Nick said. “I think people relate to the underdog story.”

A story that is not yet complete.

Dunkin has raced 11 times in 2024, winning four and finishing third on four occasions.

On March 18, he won a $67,568 leg of the Borgata Series.

For Nick, it felt like winning the Little Brown Jug.

“I am a big, strong guy, and everyone jokes that I don’t feel pain or have that much emotion,” Nick said. “When he won the first leg of the Borgata — I had told a couple of the drivers that he was a walkover, but you need to drive him to understand his greatness — I started crying.”

He did the same the next morning at the barn.

“There is no better horse, ever,” he said. “I have been around this business my whole life and I have never seen a cooler horse. He never stops eating. He has two bales of hay and water in front of him at all times because he likes to play with it all day long.

“If you walk in the barn and he’s never seen you before, he would freak out until you walked over and hugged him. If you didn’t, he would lose his mind. He is the most loving horse ever.”

For the hard-working husband and wife team, Dunkin’s journey is nothing short of stunning.

His worth to them is far more than the dollar signs or win photos.

“Back when we didn’t have a lot of money, I was shoeing horses,” Nick said. “Most blacksmiths shoe three or four a day. I had young children I needed to provide for, so when I got the opportunity to shoe for all the big barns, I would shoe 20-25 horses a day, every day.

“Betty and I do everything ourselves. What we do in a day would be hard for anyone to fathom. So, to be part of his story, to see how much he is loved by so many, and to know the heart that he has on and off the racetrack, makes it more meaningful to us.”

Nick often looks back to the day of the 2021 Harrisburg sale.

“It’s a godsend that he went at the price he did; that just doesn’t happen,” he said.

Yet it did for the Cleggs.

As of April 13th, Dunkin has 31 career wins and over $350,000 in lifetime earnings.

For the record, Betty has never uttered the words, ‘I told you so’ to her husband.

“That’s not who she is at all,” Nick said. “I say this all the time, but anyone who works as hard as Betty does deserves one Dunkin in their lifetime.

“He has been a great surprise. You could tie him to an oak tree, feed him three times a day, pet him, and he would still be a champion. For us, he always will be.”