Updated on 09/16/2011 6:54AM

Cetewayo's magic carpet ride with Dickinson


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - At the age of 3, Cetewayo seemingly had no future as a racehorse.

He had already passed through the barns of two trainers - one of them a Hall of Famer, Bill Mott - who saw no signs of talent in him. Now a third trainer, Michael Dickinson, had come to the same conclusion. He phoned John Chandler, the colt's breeder and owner, and diplomatically told him, "Really, this horse isn't showing me a lot." Dickinson said he was reluctant to continue charging his daily training fee for such a hopeless project.

Chandler is a realist, one of the most knowledgeable people in the American horse business, and his response surprised the trainer. "Michael," he said, "have faith."

Even if his faith had been boundless, Dickinson couldn't have imagined what this colt was going to accomplish. After being trounced in a lowly $13,000 claiming race at Philadelphia Park, Cetewayo developed into one of America's top turf horses as a 4-year-old in 1998. But his most amazing feat was yet to come. On Feb. 16, he rallied to win the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap, becoming only the third horse to win a Grade 1 stakes at the age of 8.

Chandler bred and raised the son of His Majesty at his Mill Ridge Farm in Kentucky, and named him Cetewayo after a Zulu king. He knew that the dam's other foals had ability and liked what he saw in the youngster. "He showed flashes now and then when he was a yearling. He'd be quiet - and then he'd do something," Chandler said. So he was unpersuaded when Dickinson delivered his assessment. "You can't say a horse can't run until you try him," Chandler observed.

Dickinson tried Cetewayo in that cheap claiming race on the dirt at Philadelphia Park, where he finished a distant fourth. There was one thing left to try - grass, which happens to be Dickinson's forte as a trainer. At the end of his 3-year-old season, Cetewayo rallied from far behind to win his first attempt on turf. At least, Dickinson thought, he might be a useful allowance-class grass runner.

At about that time, Dickinson was about to fulfill his long-time dream as a trainer. Since the days when he trained steeplechase horses in England, he had admired the great Thoroughbred training centers in Europe with their lush, rolling grass surfaces. Horses stayed sounder there, he thought, than they did on hard, unforgiving American dirt tracks, and he aspired to build the ideal training center in the United States. In 1998 he opened Tapeta (from the Latin word for "carpet") Farm in North East, Md. One of the farm's initial residents was Cetewayo and he loved the facilities, particularly his own, private two-acre grass paddock.

"He's such a relaxed laid-back horse that it had been difficult to get him fit," Dickinson said. At Tapeta, however the horse exercised on a specially designed uphill course, and he thrived on the regimen. "He relished training up the hill," Dickinson said. "Instead of breezing 12 seconds a furlong [on a flat course], he'd canter at 15 seconds a furlong uphill and get a lot more out of it."

After training at Tapeta, Cetewayo developed into a top-class performer, winning three stakes races in 1998, including the Grade 1 Sword Dancer Handicap at Saratoga. But after emerging as a star, he was plagued by a series of physical problems. He raced once at 5 and was sidelined by an injury to his hind leg. He ran only twice at 6, winning one stakes, and was injured again. Most stakes-winning horses would have been retired to stud by this time, but Cetewayo, despite his achievements, is not what the breeding industry considers a desirable stallion. "We've tried to market mile-and-a-half grass horses before," Chandler said, "and people in America don't want them." American breeders prefer stallions who displayed speed and precocity as racehorses, and Cetewayo had neither.

There was nothing to do with Cetewayo but let him heal and keep him in training, and his trainer is legendary for his patience. Dickinson will wait for years until a horse is ready to run - one of his charges won after a five-year layoff from competition - and he gave Cetewayo the time he needed to get healthy again.

When Cetewayo returned to the races as a 7-year-old, he lost all of his starts, and performed dismally at the end of the year. Dickinson didn't give up on him. His whole stable had tailed off in the latter part of 2001, and he concluded that the poor performances "were my fault, not Cetewayo's fault."

Still, he didn't know what to expect when he shipped Cetewayo from Maryland for the Gulfstream race. The horse was healthy, but there was little precedent for an 8-year-old male succeeding in top stakes company. Dickinson knew that John Henry and John's Call had won major stakes at 8, but both were geldings. "Once stud horses get to about 6, they're usually not interested in running," the trainer said.

Cetewayo went to the post at 18-1, reflecting his poor recent form. He rallied from 10th place, accelerated explosively in the stretch and won by 3 1/4 lengths. At the age of 8, he still loves to run.

(c)2002, The Washington Post