11/18/2003 12:00AM

Dickinson: Not just a turf trainer

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LAS VEGAS - Michael Dickinson has had many stakes winners over the years, but in last weekend's Laurel Futurity winner, Tapit, he now has a colt who has all the tools to take him to the Kentucky Derby for the first time.

Up until a few years ago, Dickinson was known primarily as a "turf trainer," but that label no longer applies. At one time, the majority of his runners were European-breds, so they were naturally suited to grass. With a healthy respect for pedigrees, Dickinson's major strength has always been knowing where to place his horses, and his lofty win percentage over the years has consistently been between 20 and 40 percent. If his runners have turf pedigrees and are bred to route, he does not begin their careers on dirt at six furlongs like many trainers do.

Success breeds more success, and because of the heroics of two-time Breeders' Cup Mile winner Da Hoss (by Gone West), Dickinson acquired more horses with turf pedigrees, such as the multiple-stakes-winning 9-year-old, Cetewayo (His Majesty). Dickinson has enjoyed great success with owners Dr. John Chandler and Chandler's wife, Alice, who are the owners of Mill Ridge Farm.

They have had particular success with the offspring of Aletta Maria. By renowned European stallion Diesis, 18-year-old Aletta Maria has been a remarkable broodmare who has produced quality individuals no matter to whom she was bred. From 10 foals, she has produced three stakes winners - Cetewayo, Bowman Mill (Gone West), and Ntombi (Quiet American). She has also produced four stakes-placed horses - Bryntirion (Bering), Fort Nottingham (Alleged), De Aar (Gone West), and Sarie Marais (Unbridled). It's not inconceivable to think more stakes winners are on the way; Aletta Maria has a yearling filly and a weanling filly by Dynaformer.

Turf is still Dickinson's specialty, but to dismiss his runners in major dirt races is folly. Many owners, including the late Verne Winchell and Winchell's son, Ron, have sent runners to Dickinson over the past few years. The Winchells sent Dickinson horses by Seattle Slew (Fleet Renee, winner of the Mother Goose and Ashland Stakes), Olympio (Lorline), and Pulpit (Tapit).

One of Dickinson's clients is Gestut Schlenderhan, a major breeding operation in France that goes by the name of Galopp LLC, which includes Baroness Karin von Ullman; the Baroness's son, Baron George von Ullman; and the Baron's wife, Carena. Galopp LLC owns Soto (Dehere) and Paddington (Saint Ballado), two runners who won stakes under Dickinson's guidance. Soto won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last year as a 2 year-old, and won the West Virginia Derby in a thrilling finish over Dynever this year. Soto also finished second to Ten Most Wanted in the Super Derby, his only loss in six lifetime races.

Paddington has shown ability, winning Delaware Park's Whirling Ash Stakes, but his mental immaturity contributed to a poor performance in the Champagne Stakes. He looked better finishing second behind Read the Footnotes in the Nashua Stakes, but baffled Dickinson by refusing to really extend himself.

While Paddington has much growing up to do and is not particularly bred for 1 1/4 miles, Tapit may finally be the horse that takes Dickinson to the Kentucky Derby.

Tapit was so impressive winning his maiden debut at one mile at Delaware Park by 7 3/4 lengths that the usually conservative Dickinson sent Tapit to the Grade 3 Laurel Futurity in only his second start. Faced with the kind of trouble that will prepare him for the Triple Crown trail, Tapit responded to adversity with class.

Dickinson had instructed jockey Ramon Dominguez to take Tapit back off the pace because he wanted Tapit to learn to rally behind horses, but Tapit was immediately taken out of his game when he was bumped hard early and nearly turned sideways. Becoming rank, Tapit was caught on the rail behind the leaders and had no place to go for much of the race, checking several times. The problem was enough to discourage most runners, let alone a 2-year-old making only his second start. But in the stretch, Dominguez was able to find an opening, and once through, Tapit's explosive move propelled him to an easy 4 3/4-length victory.

Verne Winchell enjoyed success at the highest level of racing for over four decades until his death in 2002, only a few months after he purchased Tapit for $625,000 at the September Keeneland sale. At that time, Tapit's sire, Pulpit, had just two crops of racing age, and his better runners included stakes-winning 3-year-olds Essence of Dubai and Bema, and one of 2002's best 2-year-olds, Sky Mesa.

The high class of Tapit's female line runs deep through successive generations. Expectations were high for Tapit's dam, Tap Your Heels (Unbridled), a half-sister to champion sprinter Rubiano. While she did not achieve the level of success of Rubiano, Tap Your Heels showed quality when she won the Hildene Stakes, and her value as a broodmare far outweighed what she did on the track.

By the late Unbridled, Tap Your Heels is out of Ruby Slippers (Nijinsky II), who is a half-sister to the sire Marine Brass (Fifth Marine), and multiple stakes winner and speed influence Glitterman (Dewan). The quality of this distinguished female line doesn't end there. Ruby Slipper's dam is Moon Glitter (In Reality), who won the Martha Washington and Rampart handicaps and is a full sister to Relaunch. Along with Valid Appeal, Relaunch was responsible for carrying on the important sire line of In Reality.

With Pulpit (A.P. Indy) on top, and Unbridled, Nijinsky II, and In Reality up close in her dam's pedigree, Tapit should only be better at age 3, stretching out to middle and classic distances. Combined with the unquestionable class of his female family, Tapit has the pedigree to succeed at 1 1/4 miles.