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Patience Pays Off for Dickinson as Breeders' Cup Approaches

November 04, 1998|ANDREW BEYER | WASHINGTON POST

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — If they were trained by anyone other than Michael Dickinson, the horses Cetewayo and Da Hoss would be considered implausible entrants in the Breeders' Cup.

Cetewayo was trounced in a $13,000 claiming race only a year ago, but on Saturday he will be running for a $2 million purse in the Turf. Da Hoss has raced only once since 1996, in a modest allowance race, and conventional wisdom suggests that he can't possibly be fit enough to beat some of the world's best grass runners in the Mile. But conventional wisdom does not necessarily apply to Dickinson.

Most racing fans on this side of the Atlantic knew little of the trainer before he won the Breeders' Cup Mile with Da Hoss in '96. However, in the 1980s he was the most celebrated trainer of steeplechasers in England. He was given one of the most coveted, high-profile training jobs in the world, flopped conspicuously and came to the United States to restart his career. Here he was consumed by a vision of building a revolutionary type of training facility. He opened his Maryland farm in March, and the early results suggest Dickinson, 48, is poised to become a major force in U.S. racing.

Dickinson was a champion rider in England before he turned to training steeplechasers and within four years was elected to the sport's Hall of Fame. He developed seven champions. On one memorable day he started 21 runners and had 12 winners, with 20 finishing in the money.

In the 1983 running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, one of the world's great jumping races, he saddled a five-horse entry, and finished 1-2-3-4-5.

As the racing world acclaimed Dickinson's talent, Robert Sangster hired him. Sangster became the most prominent horse owner in the world by spending lavishly at yearling sales, and training his regally bred youngsters was a fabulous opportunity. But Dickinson achieved minimal results. He viewed most of Sangster's horses as "immature" and it is not in his nature to push horses in order to fulfill his personal ambitions. He was on the job for only six months when Sangster dismissed him.

"Losing a job wasn't the end of the world," Dickinson said. "But losing your reputation is."

A veterinarian who worked for Sangster told Dickinson he could arrange contacts with some new clients--in America. In 1987 Dickinson came to the United States to rekindle his career.

Although most of his experience had been with steeplechasers, and he had never trained horses to race on dirt, Dickinson made the transition easily enough. Horsemanship is horsemanship. In his first year, 1987, he won with 12 of the 42 horses he saddled. Based at the training center in Fair Hill, Md., Dickinson shipped to tracks throughout the mid-Atlantic region and won a high percentage year after year. But he harbored grander ambitions.

In his youth Dickinson worked for the legendary Irish trainer Vincent O'Brien at his training center, Ballydoyle. Not only was the setting elegant, but the training surfaces were so good that Dickinson never saw a lame horse. The environment was a stark contrast to the typical American racetrack, where horses train by pounding a hard dirt surface day after day. "I developed a passion for track surfaces," Dickinson said. "What I wanted to find was a surface that would mimic dirt tracks but without the bad characteristics--so that horses can train daily without breaking down."

He spent four years tinkering with formulas until he finally devised a mixture of sand, rubber and several other secret ingredients and called it Tapeta, from the Latin word for "carpet." After buying a 200-acre site, Dickinson and his companion-assistant trainer Joan Wakefield spent two years developing a farm with three grass courses, extensive cross-country gallops--and the Tapeta training track as its centerpiece. Because the track is built with an upward gradient, horses work hard and get fit galloping on it--but without the hard pounding usually needed to accomplish the purpose.

"When the horses canter daily their heart rate gets up to 200 or 210," Dickinson said. "If I worked them at 200 to 210 on a dirt track, they'd break down in little time."

Dickinson gives the surface much of the credit for Da Hoss' comeback and Cetewayo's implausible transformation. Da Hoss did interval training on the Tapeta track--galloping up the incline and then coming back to do it again. When he made his first start in two years, he was fit enough to score an authoritative victory at Colonial Downs in Virginia.

Cetewayo showed not a glimmer of ability for two other respected trainers, but his owner wouldn't give up and sent him to Dickinson, for whom he lost a cheap claiming race at Philadelphia Park in September 1997. The trainer said, "When we started him on the new track, he got fitter and felt more secure on it. The boy who rides him told me, 'This horse has got so much more confidence.' " Cetewayo improved so much he upset the defending U.S. grass champion, Chief Bearhart, at Belmont Park and won a Grade I stakes at Saratoga.

Dickinson was patient, too, with himself. A man once on top of the racing world might have gotten frustrated running moderate-class horses at the likes of Philadelphia Park. But Dickinson was willing to wait as long as necessary to achieve his idea of perfection.

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