Michael Dickinson Trainer
Thursday December 7, 2006
The oft-honored Michael Dickinson is perhaps best known as racing's "Mad Genius" in response to his unorthodox approach to conditioning his runners, but few can argue with his success.
After an impressive career as a steeplechase rider and trainer in his native England, Dickinson made the move to U.S. racing in 1987 and soon established himself as one of the premiere trainers in his adopted country.
Having learned the ropes, so to speak, under the tutelage of Ballydoyle master Vincent O’ Brien, it was Dickinson's dream to establish his own Ballydoyle-style training facility in America. In operation since 1998, Dickinson's 200-acre Tapeta Farm is not only one of the most beautiful facilities in Maryland, but also has become one of the most innovative and successful Thoroughbred operations in North America.
Boasting a winning percentage that is nearly twice that of the average win rate among active trainers--with more than 40 stakes wins to his credit--Dickinson is perhaps best known for conditioning 1996 Breeders' Cup Mile winner Da Hoss back from a two-year layoff to score a second win in the 1998 running of that event.
Michael, As an ex-pat of seven years I remember the great things you did in England with the likes of Badsworth Boy and Wayward Lad. However, it seems lately you're better known for developing and promoting the Tapeta racing surface, and I understand why this has become your number one priority, but I'd rather read about your exploits sending out winners. What are your expectations for 2007 on the racehorse side of things?
We have reduced the number of horses we are training to about 15 in 2007. Look Out Lori, won first by nine lengths, and we have Easy Bella, an unraced Red Ransom filly.
My wife wanted me to retire from training and to help her with the Tapeta footings business, which is doing extremely well and is very busy. However, I am first and foremost a horse lover, and there is no way I could survive without some horses in my life.
I'm writing from God's country, not to far from Harewood. I was lucky enough to be at Cheltenham on the day of the famous five and still cherish that as one of the truly great days I've been racing. What do you consider to be your supreme achievement, was it at Cheltenham, or the Breeders' Cup successes of Da Hoss, or was it something else because there have been so many.
The achievement of which I am most proud is Da Hoss second Breeders’ Cup win. Da Hoss had some fairly severe physical infirmities; one very well known vet thought that he should be retired and another very well known vet said he won't make an allowance race, let alone the Breeders’ Cup, and there was a lot of evidence to suggest that they were right. And with the help of Joan, Miguel, and Jon-Boy, they got that horse 100% fixed and produced him sound at Churchill. What’s more, we were all very confident he would win.
I wasn’t nervous before the race because I felt they had done a really good job. I spoke to Johnny at 10’oclock in the morning in the jocks’ room and told him in no uncertain terms he was going to have a winner in the afternoon. I left the jocks' room with tears in my eyes. That was tremendous job satisfaction.
I am privileged to help care for Da Hoss at the Kentucky Horse Park and would like to know what you saw in him that made you enter him into the 1998 Breeders' Cup after the long layoff? I adore that horse....thank you for your faith in him!
Two reasons: one is we had the best horse, and two, he was fit and sound. When I visited Da Hoss at the Horse Park in September, it was so gratifying to see. He was so well looked after and he’s certainly very happy. Every time we visit him, it is just a matter of who is going to cry first -- Joan, Jon-boy, Miguel or myself -- because this horse meant so much to all of us.
My teenage daughter wants to pursue a career in training Thoroughbreds. It's obviously a difficult business. Do you have any advice as to how she can "apprentice"?
I would definitely advise against her training horses. It’s seven days a week, morning until night, 52 weeks a year. My wife and I have missed an awful of life and we haven’t had a holiday together since 1988, because one of us always has to stay at home to mind the shop.
It is not a thing I would recommend; it’s a tough game. I would not trade that day at Churchill Downs for anything, but we have sacrificed a lot. The first question is whether she is willing to do all that and whether her husband to be is willing to do all that.
One of the reasons I recommend against it is that we really can’t pay our help enough. I would love to pay grooms and riders more money, but that is not economically feasible, given the state of the industry. My grooms are really, really hard workers and great people; they would do anything for me, and I feel guilty, and I pay as much as anybody’s grooms in America, but they deserve more.
I believe you were one of the first trainers to install a synthetic track at your training center. With the influx of the different types of synthetic surfaces we now see, do you foresee problems with certain trainers not running their horses at certain tracks because of the difference. For instance, Kentucky has Polytrack at Turfway and Keeneland, but Churchill does not. I think it could be a problem down the road.
The writer is correct in that I was the first with a synthetic track, in March of 1998, and I was perhaps ahead of my time when the racing press dubbed me the “mad genius.”
At the time, they didn’t know which I was – mad or the genius. They still don’t know which I am. It was with some debate whether America was ready for this. I do not believe there will be many trainers boycotting a synthetic surface track. In fact, the opposite is already happening. The trainers are voting their feet and gravitating to the safer surfaces. I believe the owners also want their horses to run over the safest track. Even if the purse is fractionally higher on the dirt track the owner would still have a sound horse at the end of the day.
I believe that the tracks which install a good synthetic surface will have a lot of runners and those that stay with old dirt surface will lose horses. The owner wants his horses back. If he gets beat, it is not the end of the world; but if his horse is lame, it is not a good result and many owners leave the industry because of injuries.
When you lay up a horse after a long racing season, do you keep him on any type of conditioning maintenance program or just let him relax? Also, how long would it take for a horse to lose his race condition (i.e. a week)?
The worst thing in the world for a racehorse is for him to do absolutely nothing. Any athlete should maintain light health exercise.
One of my favorite lay-up remedies is to take the horses out in a large field, 30 or so acres, with some friends so they can run around, play, but maintain fitness, muscle tone, and good health. Speed training in a horse will be lost in a few days; however, long slow distance work is like money in the bank, and the horse will retain the benefit for several months.
Las Vegas, NE:
Other than synthetic tracks, what other changes would you recommend to make horse racing safer?
I would like to see the starting gate replaced by the Standardbreds type moving truck. The starting gate can be scary for horse and rider, and we’ve all witnessed some horrific scenes when the horse is upside down. Even if the horse is standing correctly, there is always a risk for even further injury when he pushes off with so much power from a standing start. It is dangerous to stifles and the injuries are not uncommon due to force needed in a starting gate.
The drawback in this plan would be the loss of jobs for the gate crew who, along with the farriers, are the unsung heroes of racing. The gate crews are brave, skillful, and compassionate -- and I would hate to see any of them without a well paid job. Two is to abolish anabolic steroids and three is the change the whip rules.
Given your steeplechasing background, I am sure you can appreciate soundness in race horses more than most people in racing today. Therefore, what do you have to say about the current obsession with speed at the cost of soundness? How do you think this can be rectified?
I could write an extremely long book to answer this. However, it is not always fair to blame speed because there are plenty of unsound nine furlong horses. What we all want is a really good horse, the horse that is going to beat everyone else and some of those come attached to warning label of “delicate.”
Can you explain in depth what all you allow one of your trainees to eat? I heard something about egg and organic grass. How does this help a horse?
We feed the best Canadian oats, timothy hay, and alfalfa from Washington state. We dedicate 12 acres of grass around the barn for turnout paddocks and hand grazing of the horses.
Typically, a horse in training will graze 30 minutes in morning and 30 minutes in afternoon. It is not so much that the grass need to be organic, but grass grown with too many chemicals tends to be covered in invisible mold which can be detrimental to the horses.
In addition, we feed a lot of the horses a lot of apples and carrots.
East St. Louis, IL:
I have seen some very well bred horses and some not very well bred horses do well for you. My question is, do you put much of an emphasis on the pedigree of a horse or do you look at other factors such as conformation and size?
A chain is as strong as its weakest link, and it is so competitive to win the good races. We really try to have good conformation and good pedigree.
You would have to say conformation is more important than pedigree, but it is very difficult to win a good race unless you have a bit of pedigree somewhere.
Does working uphill actually benefit the horse more than working on the normal track?
Very definitely yes.
Marco Island, FL:
I’ve always admired your unique way of training Thoroughbred race horses. I like your style. One question that has never been fully explained to me is the phenomenon of Turf to Dirt. Why does the form of some horses improve from a series of grass outings to a switch to the main track--especially the first time (race). Is it all to do with the footing, or could it also be something that just makes the horse more interested?
There are some statistics that show the turf to dirt angle has been successful. I believe it has to do with soundness. Most horses will come out of a turf race sound.
It's probably the stifles that are the single biggest reason. Many believe the dirt damages the stifle ligaments, and the turf strengthens the stifle ligaments.
From a trainer's perspective, what is the number one physical characteristic you look for in a young horse and why?
Speed. They need to be well muscled to have power. Nobody can with a slow horse.
Can you comment on the racing ability of Soto? I love him as a stallion prospect, but it would interesting to hear your view on his racing ability and class. Thanks!
Soto was one of the best horses I’ve ever trained. He had the speed to win at six furlongs in 1:08 and broke the track record at nine furlongs in beating Dynever. I had so much confidence in Soto I actually purchased 10% of the horse, and I too believe he will make a terrific stud.
In 1983, the year you trained the first five home in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, did you think there was much of a possibility of that happening? Of the five, did you think Bregawn had the best chance?
There were two other very good horses in the 1983 Gold Cup of which I was very afraid. I knew we had some horses with good chances, but I was scared to death somebody else would win the race and we would be second, third, or fourth. I did not think Bregawn was our best chance.
Seeing as you have spent several years training on your synthetic surface; in your opinion, what bloodlines/body type/running style can we expect to see succeed the races run on synthetic surfaces?
Since we bought the farm, we have had eight grade I winner on dirt and turf. All our good horses have handled the Tapeta surface; the only horses who failed to handle the Tapeta surfaces were of no account.
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