If you build a better track, will they come?

On Horse Racing

May 31, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NORTH EAST -- Amid the pastoral landscape that rings this northeastern Maryland town, a quiet revolution rages.

Michael W. Dickinson, 48, a native of England and trainer of horses, has built a track that he calls revolutionary. Six of its eight ingredients are secret. But the one-mile track through woods and field, Dickinson says, is the safest in the United States.

"There's nothing like this in America," Dickinson said. "It's different. I'm not saying it's better."

But he believes it is better. And he hopes that its promise of fewer injuries will prompt owners to fill his 40-stall, Amish-built barn with top horses.

The track -- called Tapeta, Latin for carpet -- is part of a meticulously designed training center Dickinson and his partner, Joan Wakefield, opened April 1 on 200 acres a few miles southeast of North East.

One owner has already responded. Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale, the Texas furniture-store magnate, has assigned 11 2-year-olds to Dickinson.

McIngvale had his horses with Nick Zito at Gulfstream Park until several, including top Triple Crown prospects, broke down during training. After hearing about Dickinson's track, McIngvale visited the farm. He jogged on the track. Then he sent Dickinson 20 2-year-olds and told him to keep the best ones. Dickinson kept 11.

"We feel the horses he has are classic horses," McIngvale said. "We hope the lights stay on at Pimlico, and we hope we're there next year to run in the Preakness."

For Dickinson, these young horses and others he hopes to attract may bring him the fame in this country that he earned in England as a trainer of steeplechase horses.

He was champion steeplechase trainer three years. He saddled a world-record number of winners in one day: 12. He trained the first five finishers in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Kentucky Derby of steeplechasing. And five years ago, at 43, he was elected to the Steeplechase Hall of Fame.

His greatest achievement during 11 years in the United States is Da Hoss, whom he prepared at the Fair Hill Training Center for his victory in the 1996 Breeders' Cup Mile.

Dickinson spent four years experimenting with 52 formulas before creating his Tapeta track. It is 53 percent sand and 5 percent rubber bits, he said. He declined to reveal the six ingredients that make up the remaining 42 percent. Nor would he say how much his state-of-the-art training center cost.

"If I told you that," he said, "then you'd really think I'm nuts."

Dickinson said horses running on his springy track experience ,, one-half the impact they do on a conventional track. And water drains right through it, he said.

"On a normal day, it's twice as safe as a dirt track," Dickinson said. "But after rain, even heavy rain, it's 10 times safer. That's its greatest asset."

The one-mile track is European in design. It begins in the woods, rises up a hill to the right and then bends back to the left as it enters a rolling field.

The center also includes three turf tracks, 100 acres of cross-country gallops, 50 acres of paddocks and an eight-horse exerciser that allows horses to walk or jog unrestrained. Pennsylvania Amish craftsmen built the barn so airy and efficient that if you were Mr. Ed, you'd try to talk your way in.

In the two months Dickinson has trained horses on the Tapeta track, he has won with 42 percent of his starters throughout the mid-Atlantic, including Pimlico and Laurel Park. But that incredible percentage will certainly fall, he said, simply because he doesn't have enough good horses.

At least not yet.

Classy filly arrives

Maryland in general and Gary Capuano in particular received a welcome upgrade in horse talent when Really Polish arrived by van Friday at Capuano's barn at the Bowie Training Center.

Really Polish, a 3-year-old Texas-bred daughter of Polish Numbers, finished third May 2 in the Grade I Kentucky Oaks and then won the Grade III Dogwood Stakes last weekend at Churchill Downs. She is now Capuano's to train for Team Valor, for whom Capuano conditioned Captain Bodgit.

"They tell me she's a lot like Captain in her training," Capuano said. "The more you do with her, the more she wants to do."

Really Polish is immediately the best horse in Capuano's barn and one of the top fillies in Maryland. Asked whether she might be one of the top fillies in the country, Capuano said: "It's hard to tell until she gets running with the big girls."

That will happen soon enough. Her first engagement for Capuano will be the Acorn Stakes, a Grade I test of one mile next Sunday at Belmont Park.

'Sanabelle' keeps pace

Sanabelle Island, the remarkable Maryland-bred pacing filly, has picked up in 1998 where she left off in 1997.

As a 2- and 3-year-old, she won her first 23 races. As a 4-year-old, she has won nine of 12 -- for a career total of 33 victories in 44 races and earnings of $650,000.

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