by Bob Gates
In a 1989 interview Darren Dunn told Paul Turney of the Daily Racing Form (DRF) that he was 11 years old when he heard his first race.
"It was an exciting confrontation between Northern Diamond and Picatune and when I heard the announcer I fantasized, putting myself in his place,” said Dunn. “I've wanted to be the announcer ever since."
And so the dream was born!
Like a lot of us, Darren and his older brother Daryl were introduced to the track by their parents. You know how it goes; the family would head out to the races a couple of times during the summer. It was a fun way to spend time, eating popcorn, collecting brightly coloured discarded mutuel tickets and getting up-close and personal with horses. What's not to like?
Actually Darren has Daryl to thank for getting his start in the horse business. In the early 1980s Daryl heard about opportunities for a job at Assiniboia Downs. Next thing you know Daryl found work with trainer Lawrence Anonychuk as a groom. Before long, little brother followed and the Dunn boys were working side-by-side, first with Anonychuk, then Darren went to work for Noel Hickey, and the brothers reunited again with Winnipeg Jets' John Ferguson's trainer-daughter, Chris. That was it, Darren was hooked!
Suffice to say there aren't many duties at the Downs that Darren hasn’t tried his hand at. His fingerprints are everywhere on these hallowed grounds. In the early years, his resume included: Groom, Hot Walker, Chart Caller, Press Box Runner, Horse Identifier, Entry Clerk and Association Clocker.
The title may not have been official, but he was also the assistant to Track Announcer, Ken Miller. His duties in that respect would have seen him calling in reports to CKDM in Dauphin, race wrap-up results for CJOB and even calling the odd race near the end of the meet. More importantly he watched, listened and learned everything he could from Ken.
Dunn called the first race of his career as the official Track Announcer on May 24, 1989, following the departure of Miller. In 1994 he became Director of Corporate Sales and Special Events (in addition to his announcing duties). In 1997 he retired from calling races and took on the position of Director of Operations. When he left the announcing booth, Dunn had 9,800 races to his credit. In this new role, he oversaw Racing Operations, Grandstand and Racetrack Maintenance, Security and Housekeeping.
Dunn would return to the booth in 2001 while still the Director of Operations. On June 2, 2001, he called his 10,000th race and more milestones would follow. In 2004, he called race number 12,000 and in 2006, race number 13,000. On May 28, 2010, Dunn hit the 15,000 plateau, and he concluded his race calling career with over 18,000 races on the mic.
While in the booth “The Voice" was widely regarded as one of the sports' silkiest announcers and one of the best in North America. We all have a favourite "Dunnism" from his years behind the microphone. Mine is a line he used when Charlie Smith and Terry Propps' Miss Missile was behind the starting gate and getting ready to load, "Miss Missile steps-up and walks in like a professional."
Dunn’s move to the corner office came in December 2010 when he was named Assiniboia Downs' Chief Executive Officer. Following this appointment, he continued to call races until Kirt Contois took over those reins in 2012.
In the days of old, racing icon Jim Speers dealt with the Great Depression, World War ll and the 1950 flood. However, even Speers would concede that the Downs' battle with the provincial government in 2013 and the recent global pandemic would rival the challenges he faced more than 75 years ago.
When all is said and done (no pun intended) with the political battles of 10 years ago. The following quote from Dunn speaks volumes:
"All we want, all we ever wanted, in fact, is to retain more of the income that we're generating on our property."
Granted there's more stability to our local horse racing scene than there was during that "tiff" with the province, but these are still largely uncharted waters and Dunn is the right man for the task at hand. If you think others haven't tried to steal him away from the Downs, have I got a bridge for you!
Consider these numbers:
- Largest Opening Day Handle: $1,151,223 - May 31, 2022
- Largest Single Day Handle: $4,106,601 - July 6, 2020
- Largest Single Season Handle: $63,264,000 - 2020
- Largest Manitoba Derby Day Handle: $2,542,309 - 2021
The challenges faced under Dunn's leadership have been nothing short of the conquest, war, famine and death as represented in the Book of Revelation by the four horsemen of the apocalypse. If you think that's an exaggeration, please think again.
Dunn is the voice and face of the Downs, but he'd be the first person to tell you he doesn’t do it alone. He has assembled a stellar team that shares his passion. In addition, there are the volunteer members of the Manitoba Jockey Club that act in an oversight capacity, assessing the overall direction and strategy of the organization. A Board, mind you, that is still feeling the effects of the loss of Harvey Warner earlier this spring. At day's end however, we all know where the buck stops!
Commentaries from people that know:
Retired DRF man, Paul Turney offered: "Great kid! I'm glad he did well for himself."
The man he replaced in the booth all those years ago, Ken Miller, said "My first memories of Darren are from the 1980s. This school-aged kid started to show up in the Press Box. I'm not sure what he was doing or who invited him into the restricted area, but he kept coming back. In time, I saw a young Ken Miller. We both, talked our way into the Press Box, spent race days hanging the photo-finish pictures on the three levels of the facility and I wondered if this 'protégé of mine' had the ability to call a race."
The best review of Dunn's leadership qualities can be found in Jennifer Morrison's book "Run With a Mighty Heart:"
"Woodbine would not be the first Canadian track to re-open, however. Plucky little Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Manitoba, under the guidance of its determined CEO Darren Dunn, was able to begin its meet on May 25, just two weeks later than usual.
Dunn had to do some nifty manoeuvring with his track, as the 140 VLT machines, along with the popular food and beverage areas, were shut down. Fans and owners were not permitted, and masks and social distancing were strictly enforced. He tweaked the racing schedule so races could be held on consecutive weekday nights, allowing more customers to watch and wager through simulcast networks. He called it his 'cyber meet.'
The response was stunning, without hockey, basketball, baseball or football, sport and betting-starved fans poured money on Winnipeg races, the track getting more attention on social media than it ever had.
Six races on opening night lured over $1 million in bets, and much of it through Woodbine’s online Horseplayer Interactive (HPI) betting platform - a 343% increase from opening day a year earlier.
That momentum would continue through Assiniboia's 50-day meeting, ending the season with a staggering total of $63 million in wagering, dwarfing the 2019 total of just over $12 million. Dunn was quick to emphasize that his track, much like Nebraska's Fonner Park, does not make much money through simulcast wagering, receiving just a small share of the amount, with the bulk going to Woodbine's HPI. The on-track wagering from fans plus concessions are the bread and butter for those tracks."
It’s been almost 40 years since the man many know as "Double D" got his start at the Downs. His boyish charm has morphed into a middle-aged look of sophistication. Yet, CEO Darren Bradford Dunn still dares to dream, and his visions are lofty: larger fields and regular multimillion dollar handles.
What you may not realize is that Darren has a tremendous appreciation for the history of the sport and he now continues to contribute to that history.
We’re fortunate to have him at the helm!
Celebrating the new winner's circle in 1998. L to R: Sharon Gulyas, Darren Dunn, Dr. Ross McKague, Barry McQueen, Brian Billick and Lawrence Anonychuk.