There cannot be too many airline pilots who have trained a Gr1 winner!
Alongside Mike de Kock, Dylan Cunha is one of the youngest trainers to have saddled a Summer Cup winner.
Last week the 42 year old reached another milestone in what has been an extraordinarily diverse life, when he saddled his first winner from his new base at Newmarket.
Gr1 memories! Glyn Schofield gives the thumbs up as Strategic News is led in after his Gr1 Summer Cup success
Mike de Kock was only 24 when he won the Gauteng flagship in 1989 with Evening Mist, while the then 28 year old Dylan Cunha won the big one with the Australian-bred Strategic News scoring under Glyn Schofield in 2008.
In 2018 Cunha called time on training, citing a lack of support at the yearling sales, the high cost of purchases in relation to stakes, escalating costs of operations, and the difficulty competing with larger stables as some of his reasons for quitting.
He then pursued his pilot’s licence and was flying passenger jets for Mango, before Covid grounded that career.
Captain Cunha! Dylan (right) during his Mango days
“I loved it and enjoyed the whole process of becoming a charter pilot, then contract pilot and ultimately an airline pilot. Mango was great, but Covid quickly ruined that industry for years to come sadly. I am not flying anymore. With two young kids, I’m enjoying being home more with them!” Dylan told the Sporting Post, as he explained that as a Portuguese Passport holder, he made the decision to immigrate to the UK before Brexit, while they still could.
“The decision was justified after Mango eventually stopped flying a few months later. The whole family is here, all doing well and enjoying it!”
And the big icebreaker came on 9 August, when Dylan saddled his first winner courtesy of the Poet’s Voice gelding Mighty Mind, who won a handicap at Chelmsford under Jason Watson.
Mighty Mind charges clear under Jason Watson (Pic – supplied)
An enthusiastic Dylan explains:
“Mighty Mind is owned by Amadeo Del Pos, whom I met through a friend while I was doing the trainer’s modules. We got on really well and had a beer at the July Sale at Tattersalls. He sent me Mighty Mind, who needed a bit of freshening up. Things turned out well – he was only with us for 6 weeks. I think he will win next time again. Winning jockey Jason Watson is top class. He was champion apprentice, but lost his way and is on the comeback trail and is aiming for 100 winners this season.”
It’s a terrific start for the Cunha Racing Team with just 12 runners so far, 8 of them having earned prize money.
“Those stats are with only 5 horses. We live in exciting times,” enthuses Dylan, who tells us that his team is based in Newmarket in the Bottom Yard at Phantom House Stables in Fordham Road.
Champagne! Cunha Racing’s Adam Howchin, Dylan Cunha, owners Amedeo and Federica Del Pos, and Luiz Cunha enjoy the moment
“William Haggas, Ed Dunlop, William Jarvis, Tom Clover and Marco Bottie are all my neighbours. We have 28 stables to start with. I basically do all the work myself with the assistance of my father. We have two lads, Adam and Kanane, who ride out and will eventually become permanent staff.”
Dylan adds that all of Josephine Gordon, Grace Mc Entee, Abbie Pierce and Alice Bond regularly ride out for them, while Jason Watson and Kieran Shoemark have also ridden out.
“It’s nice to have the Saffers here – I regularly see Gavin Howes and Collen Story, and recently Greg Cheyne, as they work across the road from me.”
When taxed on comparisons with life as a trainer on South African soil, Dylan adds quickly that things are ‘a lot different’.
“How I miss the Maiden Plate in South Africa. Here most maidens run in handicaps after three runs. It can be tough! I ran second with Mr Fayez (a maiden) to a 10 time winner receiving a pound at Brighton, for example. Not easy as the system forces trainers to handicap horses. The cost is also quite heavy for owners as, besides training fees, one pays heath fees, transport, jockeys fees etc etc. It’s very expensive to race here! South Africa subsidizes a lot for the owners, whereas the UK puts a lot of extra costs on the owner.”
On the plus side, he adds that the different racecourses are amazing and there is lots of racing – so there are opportunities.
“Luckily Newmarket is central, so most racecourses are within two hours from us. It’s not too bad. A big positive here is that we can travel to anywhere in the world from here and we will do so – much like when we went to Dubai with Strategic News – we just need to find one soon,” he smiles.
The happy owners Amedeo and Federica, with Dylan and jockey Jason Watson
Every day is a long day, but living a passion means that it’s all rewarding.
“We get to the yard at 04h30, feed, muck out, clean water buckets, then do the strings at track and then feed again, and then do the office work until around 11h30. After that I spend time on social media growing our brand, and then back to stables at 16h00 to muck out, feed hay, water, brush etc until around 18h00. My family help so we are all in the groove and enjoy it. It’s more fun than work!”
Dylan tells that staffing is a real challenge.
“South Africans are spoilt with great grooms. I would have loved to have had my staff from 2007 over here now.
A forward and entrepreneurial thinker, Dylan is keen to promote SA racing.
“I would hope that eventually I could partner with the likes of Drakenstein, Mauritzfontein, Ridgemont Highlands, Gulf Racing, Mike de Kock and Cape Thoroughbred Sales, and bring South African horses over here and be supported by them. Some of those leading players have horses with the likes of William Haggas, Ed Dunlop, Jane Chappel -Hyam etc, but nothing says South African louder than me here at the moment.”
Dylan says that he has worked hard to forge a strong social media following and build up a good local base of owners and syndicates, as well as a good relationship with the media.
“With the right support and the right horses and partnerships with South Africans, I have set up the platform for South African horses to be taken note of here. Racing fillies here and sending them home and decent colts going back can also only keep improving the breed back in SA. The press have been extremely interested and I’ve done loads of interviews. The better myself and Collen Story, Greg Cheyne etc do here, the better.”
He has hopes that the right people take note and a platform can open up to South Africa.
“Even with travel, I still believe South Africa offers the best value for money, and I would love to tap into that for the future. I know the South African horses well and, having trained in SA and the UK, would be able to sync them into the system easier. I think a lot of them go flat when they get here.”
Motivated and with a plan, the Cunha team are building up slowly and trying to source horses that can win and babies ‘that could be anything’.
“We’ve made a lot of contacts and will be buying a few at the sales and syndicating some as well. The aim is to get to 20 horses by December and grow from there – but never more than 50 to keep it hands on and intimate. I’m really enjoying getting stuck in myself,” adds the man who used to be a very capable rider.
At the age of 42, Dylan tells how he is loving every minute, having challenged himself throughout his life and achieved things most people never do.
“I work hard and put 200% into everything I do. My family are enjoying it. They all get stuck in and help. They love the horses and they all love the UK.”
The Cunha young generation with Oupa and Ouma
Despite his new roots, Dylan still follows racing in South Africa.
“I still believe South African racing has the horses and horsemen to be a serious force in the world, but hope politics and the sad AHS issue don’t leave it there. The Hollywoodbets Durban July, for example, is still one of the great races of the world and I hope that one day I can have a Cape Met runner from here. This surely must be the dream for SA as well, to have international racing!”