Trainer goes extra mile to keep Tapit contented

Horse racing: Looking for an edge, Michael Dickinson treats his Derby contender like a king, down to the bottle of stout with his dinner.

Kentucky Derby

April 30, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - After Tapit grazed on his grass from Maryland, he went back into his stall with the two air purifiers. Later, he would have his dinner of grain mixed with a bottle of Guinness Stout and three raw eggs.

Welcome to the Kentucky Derby, Michael Dickinson-style.

He trains Tapit, one of the favorites in the Derby tomorrow at Churchill Downs. Dickinson prepared the dazzling gray colt on his farm in Cecil County and then sent him by plane Wednesday to Louisville.

Tapit arrived with the reputation of a horse who might be totally fit and healthy for the first time this year, a horse ready to run the best race of his life. Dickinson arrived with the reputation of a trainer who's eccentric, unorthodox and forever searching for that competitive edge, a trainer poised to win the Derby on his first try.

But racing fans and bettors make too much of Dickinson's eccentricities. He's the first to tell you that the best thing a trainer can have is the best horse.

"The competitive edge I've got is, I've got Tapit," he said. "That's the only competitive edge you need, really."

As Dickinson entertained reporters outside Barn 17 yesterday on the Churchill Downs backstretch, Tapit grazed behind him on grass the Dickinson workers brought from Maryland. They brought sod and laid it on the ground outside the barn.

Dickinson explained that it contains six varieties of grass selected to promote good health in horses. It's what Tapit grazes on at Tapeta Farm in North East, and it's what Dickinson wanted him grazing on at Churchill.

Dickinson placed two air purifiers in Tapit's stall. He also brought beer and eggs to feed Tapit every afternoon at 5.

"It's a way of getting more energy into a horse," the trainer said.

The idea's not new, he acknowledged. Legendary Irish trainer Vincent O'Brien did it with all his horses, and Dickinson did it with his steeplechase horses in England.

He trained jumpers in England for four years, and in three of those years he led trainers in purses and races won. In 1982, he set a world record for victories by a trainer in one day with 12. The next year, he trained the first five finishers in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, England's most prestigious steeplechase race.

His goal when he came to America in 1987 from his native England was to win the Kentucky Derby. He built Tapeta Farm in North East as his best means of achieving that.

"I just want the best for the horse," he said. "They lay it on the line for me. They give me the best they've got. They don't get medals or cups or million-dollar contracts. I'm trying to repay them for what they give to me."

Tapeta features three turf courses, an all-weather dirt track, gallop paths up hills and through woods, and bright and spacious stalls.

"A lot of stalls at racetracks are built a little bit like prison cells," Dickinson said. "We tried to build ours like hotel rooms."

He waited until Wednesday to bring Tapit to Kentucky so the colt could stay as long as possible at Tapeta. So-called experts expound the theory that a Derby horse needs a workout over the Churchill surface, but Funny Cide didn't arrive until Wednesday last year and still won.

More troubling for Tapit might be his lack of experience. He's raced only four times, and the last horse to win the Derby in his fifth start was Exterminator in 1918.

On the other hand, Tapit has fully recovered from a lung infection (contracted despite Dickinson's air-purification system) that hindered him March 13 in the Florida Derby. Tapit finished sixth for his only defeat.

On April 10, he surprised Dickinson by winning the Wood Memorial Stakes. Dickinson said Tapit was about 75 percent fit. The colt's impressive victory after rallying from last brought Dickinson to tears.

"I felt guilty because I'd asked him to go into battle without being fully prepared," he said. "He won on class and courage, not on training.

"He'd never complained despite his sickness. If he was a person, he'd not be the type to say, "I've got a headache, I'm going home.' It's impossible not to love him."

Now, finally, Tapit is fit and healthy, Dickinson said. Ramon Dominguez, Maryland's leading jockey, will ride him.

"He's going to improve," Dickinson said. "He'll definitely improve. How much? He'll improve four lengths. Will that be enough? We don't know, do we? We still don't know how good he really is."

At a glance

What: 130th Kentucky Derby, first leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown

Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.

When: Tomorrow, post time 6:04 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4. Coverage begins at 5 p.m.

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