When Dexter Dunn was really starting to make his mark in New Zealand about 13 years ago, he took a young kid under his wing.
It was a life-changing gesture for the then 14-year-old Jack Trainor, who is now one the emerging forces of Australia’s training and driving ranks.
Trainor, now based out of the huge Menangle training complex in Sydney, is back home in NZ preparing for the most special moment of his career so far. He trains and drives star mare Stylish Memphis, a key player in the inaugural $NZ900,000 The Race at Cambridge on Thursday night (April 14).
Dunn will be listening-in and cheering.
“I’m so proud of him. What he’s achieved and so quickly is amazing, but it doesn’t really surprise me I always thought he had ‘it,’” Dunn said.
“Jack’s Dad was a hobby trainer who I drove for one night and that’s how I met Jack. You couldn’t help but like him a lot. He was always smiling, upbeat and a funny story to tell. He’s one of the most positive people I’ve met.
“It wasn’t long before I was taking him to meetings, and I’d got him into Cran Dalgety’s (top NZ trainer) stables to stay and help out during his school holidays.
“Don’t worry, it was a mutual thing. I’d often take three or four horses to the races but have drives in every race so I needed someone to help wash them and take them for swabbing if needed. He always had a great work ethic and fantastic attitude.”
Trainor so impressed Dalgety he snared a full-time job as 16-year-old, which lasted three years until he got an offer he couldn’t refuse from another now US-based trainer, Shane Tritton, who was then among the top NSW trainers.
“I loved it at Cran’s and was having some success as a junior driver back home, but Mark Jones (NZ trainer) was good mates with Shane (Tritton) and opened that door for me. Shane and Lauren (Tritton) were looking for a junior driver, so I was 19 when I went across and they opened lots of doors for me during the 12 months I had with them,” Trainor said.
It is no secret Trainor loves his social life and that, along with a friendship with Todd McCarthy, prompted him to leave Team Tritton.
“I was based in Newcastle (about two hours north of Sydney) and always travelling backwards and forwards so I could get out for a drink on the weekends with Toddy and a few others,” Trainor laughed.
“A job came-up with Kevin Pizzuto (trainer). I only lasted six months with Kevin, but it got me to Sydney, and I then got a job with Blake Fitzpatrick (trainer) where I had five terrific years.”
It was late 2020 when Trainor felt he was at the crossroads.
“I looked at what Dexter and Andy (McCarthy) were doing and thought about packing my bags and trying my luck over in the US, but I didn’t think I’d done enough here yet,” he said.
“It was time to go it alone. I wanted to focus on driving because that’s what I’ve always loved the most, but I had one horse of my own and thought I’d have to train a few to try and make things worthwhile.
“Jason Grimson (Menangle trainer) let me keep my horse at his place and train from there, but I looked at the success he was having as a trainer, and it inspired me. I knew I had to give it a go as well.
“I’ve gone from that one horse, Makoa, in work in November 2020 to having a barn and a half at Menangle and 26 in work now.”
Trainor credits the Menangle training complex, the only of its size and type in Australia, as a “game changer.”
“Not just for me. It’s the same for ‘Grimmo’ (Jason Grimson) and so many others. You just can’t afford to buy land or properties up here and this has given us somewhere to train from and with big numbers of horses, too,” he said.
Trainor landed his first Group 1 wins as a driver on Stylish Memphis in the Ladyship Mile at Menangle little more than 13 months ago. The night got even better when he landed another Group 1 less than hour later on Anntonia in the NSW Oaks.
While Dunn has been the biggest human influence on his career, mighty mare Stylish Memphis is the equine equivalent.
“She’s put me on the map, on the big stage,” Trainor said. “I can’t thank Mark Jones (trainer) and Wayne (Higgs, owner) enough for trusting her with me when I was really just starting out.
“Now they have gone a step further by letting me take her back for The Race and drive her, too. It would’ve been so easy for Mark to just say ‘send her back to me’ for it, but he didn’t, and I can’t say how grateful or excited I am.
“I’m pretty proud that just 18 months into my own training career, that I’m taking a mare like back to my home country for such a historic moment in NZ with this new race.
“With all the COVID-19 restrictions, it’ll only be the third time in more than two years I’ve been back home and what a way to do it.”
Trainor is already planning another trip for later in the year.
“I’ve got to get across and see Dexter and Toddy in the States. I’m thinking something like the Lexington carnival might be the go when things are a bit more relaxed for them,” he said.
Would Trainor consider following in their footsteps?
“As I said, I thought about it a couple of years ago, but I’m set-up here now and have done the hard yards so it’ll only be for a holiday,” he said.
“I keep pinching myself here to be honest. It feels like everything has happened so quickly to have a full barn and Group 1 horses. It feels like I’m two, three or even five years ahead of where I thought I’d be so soon after going out on my own.”
Trainor will be pinching himself that little bit harder if Stylish Memphis wins at Cambridge on Thursday night. - Adam Hamilton, Harness Racing Update