When veteran trainers Dale Baird and Michael Dickinson ran into one another outside the racing secretary’s office at Presque Isle Downs Aug. 31, the conversation was not about the horses each has entered in the Sept. 1 inaugural program at the track near Erie, Pa. Rather, the focal point was the artificial surface over which the horses will be running.
“I hope your surface is fast,” Baird told Dickinson, who developed the Tapeta Footings surface being used at Presque Isle.
“It can be either fast or slow, depending on what the track superintendent wants,” said Dickinson, a successful rider and steeplechase trainer before turning to conditioning Thoroughbreds. He is perhaps best known for saddling Da Hoss to twice win the Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT).
Presque Isle Downs, returning racing to the Erie area for the first time in 20 years, is the first American racetrack to use Tapeta’s unique material for a race meet. Presque Isle has scheduled a 25-day meet with purses averaging $430,000 daily. The healthy purse distribution comes from revenues generated by the 2,000 slot machines at the track’s casino, which opened Feb. 28.
Just as there is anticipation for the race meet, there is also keen interest in how the Tapeta surface performs over the course of the meet. It has been installed in about 20 locations worldwide -- including horse training centers, European tracks, and non-equine sports facilities. In addition to Presque Isle, Golden Gate Fields will soon install the Tapeta material for its main racing surface.
While Polytrack, the most widely used artificial surface in American racing to date, has had some consistency problems, Dickinson is confident the Tapeta material will withstand the rigors of the cold winters in upper Pennsylvania. His Web site notes that Tapeta Footings has been unaffected by temperature extremes ranging from 110 degrees to 17 degrees below zero at locations where it is in use.
“Tapeta is the only synthetic surface that has stood the test of time over an extended period in the American climate,” Dickinson said. “Tapeta was designed for the American climate.”
Tapeta (pronounced ta-pee-ta) is the Latin word for carpet, Dickinson said. It consists of sand fiber, rubber, and a unique blend of waxes. While it can be dyed any color to fit the type of application, Presque Isle’s one-mile, two-turn track consists of 16,000 tons of Tapeta Footings material that is more akin to the color of a conventional dirt track.
The Tapeta material is installed over several layers that consist of a local sand/soil base; drainage pipes; six inches of clean, rectangular stone that aid the drainage process; two inches of blacktop; and the seven-inch top layer of artificial material. While maintenance costs are reduced by 75% with Tapeta Footings, Dickinson said it does rely upon a good track superintendent.
Tapeta Footings is the result of Dickinson’s lengthy effort to develop a safer track surface for horse racing. He said he became convinced it could be done while working for legendary European trainer M. Vincent O’Brien at this Ballydoyle training center.
When he relocated to America from Europe, Dickinson began work on an alternative racing surface because he did not believe technology of racetrack surfaces was keeping pace with advances in breeding that emphasized speed over distance.
After a previous attempt to develop an artificial surface failed, Dickinson succeeded with Tapeta, which has been in use at his Tapeta Farm for eight years. He credits his wife, Joan Wakefield, a retired trainer, and Tapeta’s general manager Andrea Caraballo with their research and development efforts that have enhanced the product to its current stature.
Dickinson said he was reluctant to market Tapeta Footings to racetracks because he did not believe they “would spend the money.” The breakthrough, he said, came when Keeneland became the first to install Polytrack. “I’m grateful to Keeneland for opening the door,” Dickinson said.
Though artificial surfaces are not perfect – for example, Tapeta does not perform well after ice storms – Dickinson said: “The good news is that all synthetics are better than dirt…they will not eliminate injuries, but they will reduce them."
Promoting, marketing, and overseeing installation of Tapeta Footings all over the world has impacted Dickinson’s training career in a positive way. It has removed him from the 24/7 rigors of racetrack life and allowed him to travel with his wife, he said.