From the ground up

Maryland trainer is on fast track to perfect new racing surface

November 26, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun reporter

NORTH EAST -- The day is gray and the wind is cold, but horse trainer-inventor Michael Dickinson has shorts on and his shoes off as he sprints around a half-mile synthetic surface track at his 200-acre Tapeta Farm.

"I have 25 years of data in my feet," Dickinson, 57 and a native of England, said at the end of his run. "I can have people come in here with all kinds of scientific instruments for measurements, but no one knows what the resulting numbers mean. I'll take my feet.

"I run on the track most days and train my horses on it the next. This is the best way I know to find out what kind of surface I've created."

The successful steeplechase and thoroughbred trainer, who has more than 1,300 winners, will give up his training career at the end of this year. He wants to concentrate on improving and selling Tapeta, a synthetic racing surface composed of a wax-coated mixture of sand, rubber and fiber.

Tapeta is Latin for carpet.

The surface has been in the works since Dickinson's formative years in Great Britain when he worked for legendary Irish trainer Vincent O'Brien, who "ignited my passion" for surfaces at Ballydoyle in County Tipperary.

It is a dream that has never been far from his mind, even while training his winning horses, including Da Hoss, a two-time winner of the Breeders' Cup mile, and Tapit, the Grade I Wood Memorial winner who was the third most popular choice among bettors in the 2004 Kentucky Derby.

Dickinson's concentration on racing surfaces has served him as a trainer, too. When he took Da Hoss to Woodbine for the 1996 Breeders' Cup Mile, Dickinson remembered a long-ago date with a woman who walked a steeplechase track with him in high heels. He immediately sent his wife to the store for a pair.

"After the race, my jockey Gary Stevens said, `The track was perfect' while others proclaimed it soft," Dickinson said. "Joan's high heels played an important role in the decision making for that win."

With a growing interest in synthetic surfaces and the success of his own surface, Dickinson's focus is on improving and installing Tapeta around the world.

"I hope to be remembered as both a trainer and an inventor," he said. "But I'm not going back to training. I'm done."

The native of Yorkshire this year was voted No. 1 on a list of the 100 Greatest Training Feats in the United Kingdom by the British horse racing publication Racing Post. He won for training the first five finishers of the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup. Last week, he picked up the Peter O'Sullivan Award for contributions to horse racing. Other winners have included Queen Elizabeth II and jockey Lester Piggott.

Dickinson, self-effacing about his awards - "They made a mistake and we won," he said - is more forthright about his surface, saying its safety, its adaptability to climate and its need for less maintenance makes it a winner, too.

It costs $5 million to install, which he says tracks can recoup quickly.

But his passion for surfaces is more than dollar signs. He says Tapeta is best for horses and jockeys, too.

Tapeta has been installed at Golden Gate Fields in San Francisco and at Presque Isle Downs near Erie, Pa., as well as in five foreign countries. It is also on the training track at the Fair Hill Training Center near Elkton.

"When you look out there on a daily basis, 80 percent of the workouts are being done on the Tapeta track," Fair Hill manager Sally Goswell said. "It just seems the track is consistently good no matter what the weather ... and our trainers are very happy with it."

While synthetic surfaces have proved to reduce injuries by 65 percent, and the Tapeta has received nothing but praise, a horse suffered a fatal injury on the first race ever run on it at Presque Isle last summer.

"It was a good horse with a good trainer," Dickinson said of Cantrel, trained by Scott Lake. "It was a very sick feeling when that happened."

Lake said he had been breezing his horses on the track and they had no problems. "Cantrel just took a bad step; there's nothing wrong with the track," he told The Thoroughbred Times.

Dickinson and his wife, Joan Wakefield, who was his training assistant for 19 years and now is his research assistant, are continuing to tweak their formula, looking for improvement.

Because synthetic surfaces are still being developed, synthetic track manufacturers have a battle ahead in trying to get their materials accepted by everyone, including the historic Triple Crown tracks.

"Horsemen agree the synthetics seem to be safer than most dirt tracks because they are much more like turf than dirt," Maryland Jockey Club president and chief operating officer Lou Raffetto said. "As it relates to the Maryland Jockey Club and Pimlico, we take great pride in our dirt course as to safety and fairness ... [and] I still question what the final synthetic surface will look like. It still makes more sense to sit back and watch the movie [for a while]."

But Dickinson insists synthetic surfaces will be at all Triple Crown tracks - Pimlico Race Course, Churchill Downs and Belmont Park - in three years. None has switched from dirt yet.

"I don't think tradition is an excuse when lives are at risk," he said.

Dickinson said he will continue to live in Maryland as he moves full time to his new career but will probably sell most, if not all, of Tapeta Farm, where he has about 10 horses still in training.

"I don't need a 200-acre garden," he said. "But I could never imagine not having horses in my life. But everywhere I go now, I'm surrounded by horses."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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