Balto. County track's owner saddled with $4 million suit

Trainer alleges rival stole recipe for artificial surface

July 09, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

In a case that offers a glimpse into the competitive world of horse racing, a nationally known trainer is expected to accuse a competitor in Baltimore County Circuit Court today of stealing the recipe for his artificial track.

Michael W. Dickinson has filed a $4 million suit against Thomas H. Voss, alleging that Voss "misappropriated or stole" the patented formula of sand, rubber and mix of secret ingredients horses run on when Voss built his track in Monkton.

Jurors also may have to visit the tracks, one a typical American oval and the other a European-style track that goes through woods, before they decide the case.

Dickinson, 52, of North East, and Voss, 51, declined to comment yesterday.

Those familiar with the gentlemanly but highly competitive sport said that legal battles between rival trainers are rare and that this dispute is uncommonly bitter.

"This is unheard of, really," said Sean Clancy, a former champion steeplechase jockey who has written a book on horse racing and writes for the Delaware-based Steeplechase Times.

Dickinson and Voss are well-known within racing circles and have trained top-quality horses.

Voss is one of the nation's top steeplechase trainers, and his horse John's Call was one of three finalists in 2000 for the Eclipse Award, which goes to the sport's top turf horse.

Dickinson was a champion steeplechase trainer who came to the United States from England in the mid-1980s. He is known for walking tracks before his horses race and giving specific instructions to jockeys about any problem areas he has spotted. His gelding Da Hoss won the Breeders' Cup Mile in 1996 and 1998.

Details of suit

In court papers, Dickinson accuses Voss of violating Maryland's Trade Secrets Act by illicitly obtaining the patented formula that Dickinson said he spent four years developing before he opened Tapeta Farms in 1998.

"Voss misappropriated or stole Dickinson's track formula," Dickinson alleges in the suit, filed in August. The suit alleges that Voss either hired the same consultant to build his track or directed an employee to sneak onto Dickinson's property to steal a sample of it.

Voss' attorneys denied the allegations.

"These are very serious accusations, and they have to be defended," said Michael Wyatt, Voss' Towson attorney.

Track tours requested

In court papers, Dickinson's attorneys ask that jurors be given a tour of both tracks to compare them.

The tours are necessary because jurors will find it impossible "to understand the unique and revolutionary nature of the artificial training track in question without feeling, touching and seeing it, " according to a request filed by Dickinson's attorneys, Jonathan T. Blank and Ronald M. Cherry.

Dickinson's one-mile track near North East runs through woods and fields.

Years of experiments

In a 1998 interview, he told The Sun that he spent four years experimenting with 52 formulas before he came up with the ingredients for the springy all-weather track, which he named Tapeta, the Latin word for carpet.

The track is 53 percent sand, 5 percent rubber bits and an undisclosed mix of six other ingredients, he said in the interview.

The suit says Dickinson continued to work on the formula until fall 1999, when he obtained a patent.

On his Web site, Dickinson writes that horses suffer few injuries on the artificial surface, and - with some restrictions - he promises to pay for any surgery necessary to repair any "chips, fractures or quarter cracks" suffered by horses that train on it.

"We are confident that we have fewer injuries on it; both the horses and the riders love it," according to the Web site.

Dickinson's suit alleges that by using the same recipe of patented ingredients, Voss violated the state Uniform Trade Secrets Act.

Dickinson alleges in court papers that Voss earned $2 million by training horses on his newer track at his Atlanta Hall Farm, off the 2900 block of Pocock Road in Monkton.

Dickinson's attorneys say that under state law, he is entitled to twice the amount Voss earned at his track, or $4 million.

Testimony in the case, scheduled to be heard before Judge Robert N. Dugan, is expected to run at least four days.

Sun staff writer Tom Keyser contributed to this article.

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