Wacky ways work well Horse racing: Trainer Michael Dickinson's methods may be unconventional, but no one can question the results they bring.

November 02, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A recent story in the national racing magazine dubbed Michael Dickinson a "mad genius."

Dickinson, the Maryland trainer, took offense. He telephoned the reporter.

"Please don't call me a mad genius," Dickinson said in his English accent, "just 'mad' will do."

Then yesterday, he was spotted on the Churchill Downs' turf course, marching stiffly, kicking one foot forward and then the other, smashing his heels into the grass. He was checking the condition of the turf for the two horses he will saddle Saturday in the Breeders' Cup Mile and the Breeders' Cup Turf.

But that's nothing.

Before the Breeders' Cup two years ago at Woodbine, Dickinson told his partner, Joan Wakefield, to find the nearest shoe store and buy a pair with stiletto heels. Then Wakefield in her heels, their exercise rider Jon Ferriday with a stick and Dickinson with his penetrometer, a tool for measuring softness of the turf, walked the entire course -- three times.

Dickinson drew a map for the jockey Gary Stevens, marking in green the good ground, in red the bad. The map included the instructions: Turn left out of the gate and proceed directly to the rail.

Aboard the 4-year-old Da Hoss, Stevens followed directions to a "T." Breaking from post position 6 in a 14-horse field, Da Hoss dropped to the rail. He galloped on the inside down the backstretch and around the far turn.

Finally, per Dickinson's instructions, he angled Da Hoss to the outside in the homestretch and won by 1 1/2 lengths, returning $18.90 for a $2 wager and earning $520,000 for his owners.

The "mad" horseman had struck. Beware, he's on the loose again.

Saturday at Churchill Downs, Dickinson will saddle Cetewayo in the $2 million Turf. Cetewayo is the Don Quixote of racing, a 4-year-old colt who battled imaginary windmills until Dickinson cured the delusion at his Tapeta Farm in Cecil County.

And the second horse Dickinson will saddle Saturday is Da Hoss -- yes, Da Hoss, the same horse who won the Breeders' Cup Mile at Woodbine on the course Dickinson and his associates mapped out like a AAA route.

The only thing is, because of a series of nagging injuries, Da Hoss has raced once -- just once -- in the two years since. That is perhaps the most unorthodox manner of preparing a horse for a million-dollar race in the history of the sport.

"If he wins, it'll be a minor miracle," Dickinson said.

Stranger things have happened to horses in Dickinson's care. After a five-year layoff because of injuries, Business Is Boomin won last year at Garden State Park.

A tall, slender man with salt-and-pepper hair, Dickinson comes wrapped tightly around a bundle of nerves. He is hard to corner. RTC Look away and he is gone, embarked an another mission.

"Michael leaves no detail to chance," said John Chandler, who owns Cetewayo. "He is an excellent, if a bit unusual, horseman."

A native of South Africa, Chandler lives in Kentucky and owns Mill Ridge Farm and manages the North American branch of Juddmonte Farms.

He bred Cetewayo as well as his dam, Aletta Maria. He named Cetewayo, a son of His Majesty, after the last great Zulu king. Cetewayo is pronounced with a hard "C."

Chandler first sent him to his longtime friend Bill Mott, who suggested that Cetewayo go to another trainer so he could run in turf races for maidens.

"That was a polite way of Bill saying this horse wasn't good enough to go with him to Florida," Chandler said.

Then Tom Amoss trained the colt at the Fair Grounds.

"But Tom wasn't wild about him either," Chandler said.

So Chandler brought Cetewayo home to his farm and then called on Michael Dickinson.

At the time, Dickinson trained at Fair Hill in northern Maryland. Cetewayo did not impress. Dickinson raced him first in a $13,000 claiming race at Philadelphia Park. Cetewayo couldn't even win that. He finished fourth.

On April 1, Dickinson began training at Tapeta Farm, a training center he built near North East.

Every aspect of Tapeta is wondrous, but the centerpiece is a one-mile track of secret ingredients through woods and field.

A native of England, where he became a legendary steeplechase trainer, Dickinson said the track is "revolutionary -- there's nothing like it in America."

Cetewayo relished it, running faster than ever before with a desire that was not only surprising, but also inspirational -- to the extent that on April 24, when Cetewayo competed in an allowance race on turf at Pimlico, the 4-year-old colt's exercise rider went with two weeks' wages and Wakefield with $1,000, which they bet on Cetewayo. He won by seven lengths at odds of nearly 4-1.

Since then, Cetewayo has won three stakes races, including the Grade I Sword Dancer Handicap at Saratoga. The Daily Racing Form rates him 12-1 to win the Turf.

And it ranks Da Hoss at 15-1 in the Mile. Its oddsmaker must be thinking: How can a horse with one race in two years compete against the best milers in the world?

Dickinson is unfazed. He says he wouldn't trade either horse for any other. But they both need firm turf, he says, and they need a clean trip.

They will be flying at the end -- at least that is the hope -- on a route Dickinson will be mapping this week.

Pub Date: 11/02/98

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