03/02/2016 12:26PM

Dickinson returns to training with lofty goals

Jim Dunleavy
Michael Dickinson explaining the improvements made to Tapeta 10. Seven inches of Tapeta 10 are laid on top of a drainage membrane and blacktop..

Michael Dickinson has upped the ante as he prepares for his return to training by pumping a huge amount of money into his 250-acre Tapeta Farm, which sits hard by the upper Chesapeake Bay outside the Maryland town of North East.

Dickinson was quite successful in his first round as a trainer in the United States, winning 587 races at a 23 percent clip between 1989 and 2007. He won 25 graded stakes, including eight Grade 1 races, and his stable earned purses of $20.8 million. His runners included two-time Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Da Hoss, Wood Memorial winner Tapit, and the warhorse Cetewayo, whom he campaigned for nine seasons.

But Dickinson isn’t easily satisfied and feels he has something left to prove.

“I was never happy with the results when I trained before,” Dickinson said. “I want to show I’m better than that.”

Dickinson, 66, retired from training at the end of 2007 to focus on his synthetic racing surface business, Tapeta Footings. That enterprise is now being overseen by Dickinson’s wife, Joan Wakefield, who is putting the finishing touches on the new Tapeta surface at Woodbine, which will open for training later this month.

Dickinson’s quest for improvement can also be seen in that project, as the Woodbine surface is Tapeta 10, which denotes the number of changes made to the original Tapeta product. Tapeta 10 is comprised of five different fibers, three waxes, and three polymers. Unlike the original Tapeta, it does not contain any rubber.

Tapeta 10 was installed over two tracks at Tapeta Farm last summer, a half-mile warm-up track and a 7 1/2-furlong training track that winds its way up a testing incline. Tapeta Farm also has two different turf runs, each with three lanes.

The flat course has a section for normal conditions, one for drought, and one named Noah’s Ark, for use during periods of rain or snow. The second course navigates Boomer’s Hill.

The barn at Tapeta Farm can house 40 horses. Each stall has an exterior window, which the horses seem to enjoy and results in increased ventilation. The stalls also have skylights, fans, and a fly-repellent system. The farm uses well water and has its own water-treatment station to assure purity.

Dickinson has designed and constructed portable turnout pens that can be moved by tractor each day to a new plot of grass. Plans call for the farm’s pond to be dredged to a depth suitable for equine swimming and a platform installed for handlers to walk on.

“The pond is not for fitness,” Dickinson said. “It’s to keep the horses cool on those hot summer days at 3 p.m.”

Dickinson has built a “performance center” that houses, among other things, a salt room, which kills harmful bacteria and helps with respiratory and skin disorders; an equine spa, which uses cold seawater; and a vibrating platform. A hyperbaric chamber, which will help horses recover more quickly from their races, is scheduled to be installed by May.

Laser therapy, which promotes faster healing, increases blood flow, and reduces inflammation, also will be used. It can help with sinus problems, dental issues, and soft-tissue injuries.

“From the start, I’ve made sure that none of the techniques we are trying will do any harm,” Dickinson said. “It’s a question of how much they will help.”

Dickinson is in the process of putting together his staff and recently hired two full-time equine physical therapists following a “yearlong global search.”

Dickinson’s farm-based training approach will guarantee a high level of care for his runners, but it will come at a cost. While racetrack horsemen are given free stalls and use of a track, the costs of operating Tapeta Farm fall to Dickinson, who on a Tuesday media tour of the facility said, “My day rate will be the same as the top trainers in New York, and I will still lose money at it.”

To make up the difference, Dickinson’s goal is to fill his 40 stalls with high-level runners. He will not only need to win, he will need to win the right races.

“The goal is to fill the barn with good horses,” Dickinson said. “I would like to win some big races and purses. At Tapeta, we will have happier horses. The question is, will we win more?”

Dickinson currently has 10 horses in training, most of whom are unraced 3-year-olds. He said owners have promised him others, and he was headed to South Carolina on Wednesday to look at possibilities. Obviously, it will take time to rebuild his operation, especially since this year he expects “to have many 2-year-olds who aren’t going to run that many times.”

After reflecting on his career, Dickinson has decided to modify one part of his training program. A perfectionist known for lightly racing his horses, the addition of the performance center and staff equine physiologists should enable him to run them more often.

“I didn’t race my horses enough,” he said. “I realize that.”

Dickinson, who may have been labeled a turf trainer by some – possibly because of his background as a steeplechase rider and trainer in his native England – wants to have a balanced stable of dirt and turf runners.

“If you look at my Grade 1 wins, four were on dirt, and four were on turf,” he said. “I actually prefer to run on dirt. The turf races have so many runners.”

Having said that, the horses now in training at Tapeta Farm are better suited by grass, and Dickinson has decided to wait until turf season begins to launch his comeback. It should be very interesting to follow.