11/13/2007 12:00AM

Dickinson trades horses for courses

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Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Michael Dickinson is giving up training to work full time with the Tapeta Footings surface.
Michael Dickinson, who has been a celebrated trainer on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, on Tuesday said that he was giving up training in order to devote full-time attention to Tapeta Footings, the synthetic surface he developed that already has been installed at racetracks and training centers in five countries.

"I'm not retiring. It's just a change of direction," Dickinson said via telephone from Tapeta Farm, the training center he has operated in North East, Md., for nine years. "I'll never have a life without horses."

Asked if this meant he would never return to training, Dickinson said, "My father said never to say never."

"Never is a long time," Dickinson said. "But it is unlikely."

Dickinson said the horses he had been training are in the process of going to other trainers. He said he and Joan Wakefield, his wife and assistant, are likely to sell their picturesque, 200-acre farm and training center, since they no longer will be training.

"It's going to be agony parting with it," Dickinson said. "We love living here."

Dickinson, 57, arrived in the United States 20 years ago following a spectacular rise, and then fall, as a trainer in his native Great Britain. In 1983, he sent out the first five finishers in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Great Britain's greatest jump race. He also won 12 races on a single day in 1982. His horsemanship caught the attention of Robert Sangster, at the time one of the world's leading owners, who set up Dickinson at a private yard to train runners on the flat.

The partnership was a disaster, with only a handful of starters, and winners, to show from a large stable.

Dickinson sought a fresh start in the United States in 1987. Preferring quality to quantity, he never had a huge stable, but had excellent results, most notably with Da Hoss, who won the Breeders' Cup Mile in 1996 and then again in 1998 in only his second start following a layoff of nearly two years.

Dickinson also brought back A Huevo from a four-year absence and subsequently won the De Francis Dash. His other major race winners include Cetewayo, Fleet Renee, and Tapit.

In the past year, though, Dickinson gradually reduced his training stable as his business in synthetic surfaces rapidly grew. He has had only 94 starters this year, with 12 wins.

Dickinson first installed the surface he named Tapeta - Latin for "carpet" - at the farm of the same name. Tapeta is a mix of sand, fibers, rubber, and wax. Dickinson has a patent on the wax process, which is used by other synthetic surfaces, such as Cushion Track and Polytrack.

Synthetic tracks have become more in vogue in recent years as the industry sought benefits in safety and maintenance. Southern California has gone all synthetic, and other tracks in North America have put in synthetic surfaces, too. Cushion Track has been installed at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita. Polytrack is in use at Arlington, Del Mar, Keeneland, Turfway Park, and Woodbine.

Tapeta is currently in use in the United States at two racetracks - Golden Gate Fields in California and Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania. It is also in use at several training centers, most notably Fair Hill in Maryland.

Dickinson said he also has installed Tapeta surfaces "in the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, and Korea," including the training facilities for Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin in both England and the UAE. He said two more installations are imminent in England.

"My life has changed," Dickinson said. "I used to stay at the farm a lot. With these tracks, I'm always on the road. I want to be there before, during, and after the tracks are installed."

Dickinson said he was first intrigued by synthetic surfaces more than 20 years ago, when he worked with the legendary Irish trainer Vincent O'Brien at Ballydoyle.

"It was life-changing for me," Dickinson said. "If I would see the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, and Niagara Falls all in the same day, it wouldn't have had more of an impact.

"When I first came to America, training on a farm was not fashionable. No one was going to let you train a horse there because you had a pretty farm. The only way to make it work was to have a superior surface. We first put it down on the farm nine years ago. Two years ago, Joan said she didn't want to train anymore. It's 24-7, 365. I told her to take my product and make it better. And she did. Her surface is better than my old one."