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Friday, February 15, 2013 - by T.J. Burkett, Hoof Beats Executive Editor

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In the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, in the southeast corner of Crawford County, sits the borough of Cochranton, Pennsylvania. U.S. Census from 2000 reports that 1,148 people call it home. Visitors making the 15-mile drive east from Interstate 79, which runs along Pennsylvania’s western border connecting Erie to Pittsburgh, cross French Creek and pass several charming mid-century houses. Pass the Iris Theatre and take a right past the grocery store. A left onto Pine St. leads down a quaint residential street, which ends at…

a state-of-the-art Standardbred training center and nursery, home of Walter “Boots” Dunn.

USTA/Mark Hall
Walter "Boots" Dunn has been training at his Cochranton, Pa., training center since 1946.

For the entirety of his 82 years on this earth, Dunn has called this area home. He was born here. His father, Wilbur “Cubby” Dunn, essentially built and owned the town. The Iris Theatre was named after Boots’ mother. That row of houses was built by the senior Dunn’s bridge-construction crews during the winter off-season. The Dunns owned more than 2,000 acres surrounding the tiny village.

And Dunn, who is one of the longest current members of the USTA board of directors, has been involved with horses for almost all of those years, starting in childhood.

“When I was a kid [in the 1940s], I had a pony and a rope across near the barn,” he said. “I would charge kids a nickel a ride to ride the pony from the rope down to the fence and back.”

Like almost all American success stories, W.L. Dunn Construction Company started small. As Boots tells it, his father started in 1919 with a team of oxen, plowing gardens and hauling coal. Soon he upgraded to horses, then trucks. The trucks started going in and out of a Dunn-owned asphalt plant and a sand and gravel plant, and a construction empire was born. Soon almost all the roads and bridges in western Pennsylvania—including I-79—were built using Dunn construction materials and labor.

But for all the work Dunn was doing building Pennsylvania’s roadways, he still found time to get into harness racing. In 1946, Cubby bought their first horse, and Boots has been involved in the sport ever since.

USTA/Mark Hall
A bird's eye view of Cochranton shows how Dunn's holdings-which account for everything east of the racetrack in this image-dominate the small town.

Dunn was driving for a quarter-century before the nearby Meadows Racetrack was a thought in Delvin Miller’s mind. He and his father would mostly travel to Ohio, racing at such venues as Northfield Park, Painesville Raceway and Grandview Raceway. Unfortunately, Cubby died in 1972, so he never saw the stable’s first 2:00 competitors, Advocator Hanover and Justassuming. When Boots took over the Justadun Stable, the barn had 50 head.

Forty years later, Dunn’s training takes place over two tracks built on the property: one a third-mile jogging track built in 1948, and the other a half-mile all-weather limestone track around the outside. Dunn is understandably proud of his setup.

“I’ve trained horses in 2:01 here,” he said. “We could hold one of those two-day [meets] if we had barn space.”

USTA/Mark Hall
Dunn raises Pennslyvania breds on his "'Bac' One Hundred,"a 100-acre plot of fenced pastures in the rear of the property. The entrance can be accessed from the backstretch of the training track.
Just a gentle rise above the tracks is the “'Bac' One Hundred,” a creatively spelled term for the 100 acres of separate pastures for broodmares, weanlings and turned-out 2-year-olds. Dunn said that convincing his wife, Donna, to purchase the property, took some doing, but in the end he won out and continued to show his dedication to the burgeoning Pennsylvania breeding program by expanding his holdings.

“My wife has been gone seven years,” he said. “She said we were too old to buy this land, but I said ‘Nobody on earth is building what we are building here,’ so we bought it. I put a windmill up there where she could see it from the house. The windmill supplies water to the pastures.”

While Dunn does own some broodmares and proudly races his homebreds at the Pennsylvania fairs—trotters only, please—he doesn’t bother standing any studs, instead opting to buy shares in Tom Ridge, SJ’s Caviar, Cantab Hall and Glidemaster. He compares racing and construction in how larger stables and companies, respectively, have made it tougher for smaller outfits to survive.

“The little man anymore can’t handle it [in construction],” he said. “Now that carries over into racing. The little guy has got to have pretty good stock to beat the bigger ones.

USTA/Mark Hall
Dunn with Lisa Adams, his daughter, who helps out at the barn.

“We used to have a stud or two of our own. Now you can’t make it that way. I have shares in five or six studs and that’s the only way we’re competitive. Breed to the best you can afford.”

Despite his protestations, Dunn has seen much success in his 60-plus years in harness racing. He’s widely known as the winningest amateur driver ever, with 1,152 wins to his credit. But he doesn’t do it all without help. Dunn has four living daughters, with daughter Lisa still helping out around the barn. Another daughter, Leslie, married horseman Bill Zendt. And Boots Dunn, a man who started in harness racing with his father, now can watch his grandson, driver Brian Zendt, carry on the fourth generation of harness racing.

“This whole thing is family up here,” he said.

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.