04/22/2004 11:00PM

In Derby, trainer runs for respect

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Tamara Faulkner/Tapeta Farms
Michael Dickinson's debut in the Kentucky Derby, with Tapit, has been in the making since 1987, when the trainer came to America from England.

NORTH EAST, Md. - Michael Dickinson is a celebrity in England, where his training exploits have landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records and afforded him audiences with Prince Charles and Her Majesty the Queen.

In just four years of training steeplechase runners, Dickinson was the champion trainer three times, won 12 races in one day, and - the most impressive of all his accomplishments - saddled the first five finishers of the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Kentucky Derby of steeplechase racing.

Since coming to America in 1987, Dickinson has maintained a .242 winning percentage (540 winners from 2,224 starters), won a Breeders' Cup race with a horse who had run once in two years, and won another Grade 1 race with a horse who had run once in four years. While that may have won him adulation from handicappers and the media, Dickinson still does not feel he has earned the respect of the American racing establishment.

"No, not really," Dickinson, a 54-year-old native of Yorkshire, England, said last week. "But, I haven't deserved it."

On Saturday, he'll have his chance. Dickinson will take his first crack at North America's most important racing prize when he saddles Tapit in the 130th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Tapit, a large gray son of Pulpit, has won three of four starts, including the Wood Memorial. Despite the fact that no horse with four career starts or fewer has won the Derby since Exterminator in 1918, Tapit figures to be among the top three betting choices in what is perceived as a wide-open Derby.

Dickinson's presence in the Derby is 17 years in the making. A former steeplechase jockey and trainer, Dickinson began training on the flat in England for Robert Sangster. He was promptly fired after having won just four races in six months.

"It was a total disaster," said Joan Wakefield, Dickinson's longtime girlfriend and assistant. "He could've gone back to jump racing the very next day and had 200 horses. He said, 'No, everybody thinks I failed, I need to prove I haven't.'"

And, Dickinson had to do it his way. Dickinson believes the surfaces and tight turns at racetracks are conducive to injury. He began training at the Fair Hill training center in Maryland, but was always on a quest to build his own facility. It took eight years, but in 1998 he finally opened the state-of-the-art Tapeta Farm, modeled after the famed Ballydoyle training center of Ireland's Vincent O'Brien, Dickinson's mentor and idol.

The 200-acre facility includes three turf tracks - used under normal, wet, or dry conditions - and an all-weather dirt surface consisting of 53 percent sand, 5 percent rubber, and 42 percent secret recipe, one Dickinson had patented. In 2002, Dickinson filed a lawsuit against trainer Tom Voss, alleging that Voss stole the formula for Dickinson's all-weather surface to use at his own farm. That suit was settled before it went to trial.

"I wouldn't train if I didn't train here," said Dickinson, who credits the farm for his success. "I felt we lost our way a few years ago. Things changed when I had the farm. I wasn't training very well before Da Hoss came along. He gave me more confidence, but the farm gave me the most."

Still, Dickinson had to shake the reputation of being a turf trainer, a tag naturally attached to a horseman with a European background. Dickinson's success with Da Hoss and Cetewayo further enhanced that reputation. Da Hoss won the 1996 Breeders' Cup Mile and won it again in '98, having had just one prep race after recovering from a bowed tendon. Cetewayo won a Grade 1 at age 8, in a career that included two lengthy layoffs.

It wasn't until a few years ago, when doughnut magnate Verne Winchell sent him the filly Fleet Renee, that Dickinson was able to show his prowess with a dirt horse. Fleet Renee won two Grade 1 races at 3. Winchell purchased Tapit for $625,000 in the fall of 2002, but died a few months later. His son, Ron, runs Winchell Thoroughbreds now.

Last year, Dickinson nearly made it to the Derby with Soto, a graded-stakes winner at 2 who was forced off the Derby trail due to injury.

It is Dickinson's attention to detail and compulsive personality that distinguishes him from his colleagues. Whereas most trainers wouldn't think of investing four years in a horse, Dickinson volunteered to train A Huevo for free after a setback prompted owner Mark Hopkins to wave the white flag. Dickinson and Hopkins were rewarded when A Huevo won the Grade 1 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash last November at Laurel Park.

One of Dickinson's poster-size scrapbooks includes the detailed written instructions he laid out for jockey Gary Stevens before Da Hoss winning the 1996 Breeders' Cup Mile. Dickinson felt the Woodbine turf course had a bias, and he highlighted in yellow and pink where he wanted Stevens to have the horse at various points in the race.

"Da Hoss and A Huevo were remarkable training achievements that required equal amounts of patience and skill," Hopkins said. "He's the only guy that combines those two things. I'm totally convinced nobody else could have done that."

Dickinson's farm has room for 40 horses, and that's basically all he wants. "It was never our intention to get big," Wakefield said. "We just want 40 good ones."

Still, Dickinson hasn't yet attracted the deep-pocketed owner looking to fill those stalls with million-dollar babies.

"I think what you're dealing with is, most owners at the high level who invest millions of dollars are egomaniacs," Hopkins said. "They see Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert on television, and it's a knee-jerk reaction; who I'm going to select as a trainer. Michael gets the short end of the stick. Michael was brought up to be a gentleman from the English perspective, and it's unseemly to self-promote, which is what those other people do."

Dickinson spends much more time at his farm than he does the track. When he ships a horse for a race, he usually sends one of his assistants.

"A lot of winners train at the racetrack," Dickinson said. "I'm trying to demonstrate that there is another way. Obviously, I'm controversial. Woody Stephens was never a fan of training anyone on the farm, but they never had a farm like Tapeta."

Like most handicappers, Dickinson views the Derby as extremely wide open. Dickinson believes that half of the 20 expected runners could win the race and that the entire field should be 10-1.

Asked if he would wager on Tapit at 10-1, Dickinson said, "I've got the farm's reputation on it, so I've got enough on it."