04/06/2017 2:26PM

Hovdey: Dickinson takes all hurdles in stride


Dear Gonzaga fans:

There is no consolation for what happened last Monday night in Phoenix. Only time will heal the wound, although a nasty scar will remain. Take heart, however, in the nobility of your quest, and find therapeutic respite from the agonies of the hard court in the more bucolic setting of Thoroughbred racing, with a full day’s worth of the best any sport can offer.

You will go to bed Friday night with the name of Winx ringing in your ears, a blessed change from the shriek of the referee’s whistle. Awaken Saturday morning refreshed, and soar with the best of Europe’s steeplechasers in the fabled Grand National from England. Then, after lunch and a Bing Crosby flick, hopscotch across the United States with a rich relay of 3-year-olds scrapping for a place in the Kentucky Derby gate.

The horses aligned against Winx in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Royal Randwick Racecourse in suburban Sydney are facing longer odds than your beloved Zags did in the finals. The best way to experience the Winx Effect for the first time is to forget that she has won her last 16 races. Never mind that she is the top-rated grass horse in the world. Simply enjoy the sight of a great athlete in action, separating herself from an otherwise capable field of male horses.

The Grand National is the jump race that stops Britain in its tracks. No popular event – not even the NCAA title game – is gambled upon with more ferocity. And no race has a more visceral history.

There are 40 horses intended to go forth in this year’s 170th Grand National over the Aintree course, located just outside of Liverpool. The race is four miles and 3 1/2 furlongs over 32 fences with names like Becher’s Brook, The Canal Turn, Foinavan, and The Chair. Riding in the Grand National must be something like fighting for the NCAA title, only more so. But let’s ask someone who’s been there.

“It’s a tremendous thrill,” Michael Dickinson said Thursday from his Maryland training yard. “I still dream about Aintree, and if I could ride it again on Saturday, I would love to.”

Dickinson, 67, spent 10 years as a professional jump jockey before turning to training in 1980. He mastered both jumpers in England, where he saddled the first five finishers in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup, and Thoroughbreds on the flat in the U.S., where his wins include two editions of the Breeders’ Cup Mile with Da Hoss.

But he never won the Grand National as a trainer or jockey, to his everlasting regret. His first ride came in the 1976 running, with its field of 32. He fell at the fourth fence aboard High Ken. In 1977, Dickinson and Winter Rain were in with a chance at a respectable 16-1, but they fell at Becher’s Brook the first time around. Only 11 of the 42 runners finished that day in a race won by the legendary Red Rum.

“To be a part of it is unbelievable,” Dickinson said. “But as a rider, you don’t think, ‘Oh, The Chair’s coming up.’ You say, ‘Yes, The Chair. Come on, let’s go!’

“One of my best friends was going to the race about four years ago, and I said, ‘You can’t go to the National without walking around and seeing the jumps,’ ” Dickinson added. “So, I asked Graham Lee to take him around.”

Lee won the 2004 Grand National on Amberleigh House.

“Graham said, ‘Walk ‘round? You must be joking. On the back of a horse? Great. But standing on the ground, they’re unjumpable! I don’t need that,’ ” Dickinson said.

Dickinson’s fingerprints are all over the Kentucky Derby preps to be run on Saturday as well. He trained Tapit to win the 2004 Wood Memorial, which will have its 98th running at Aqueduct, this year for a $750,000 purse, while Tapit’s son Tapwrit will face McCraken in the $1 million Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, and Tapit’s son Reach the World is among the 13 entered in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby.

“I was very worried about the horse going into the Wood,” Dickinson said. “I didn’t think he was quite right. But he showed what a really good horse he was to still win. Just a tremendous amount of courage to go with his ability.”

In light of his dominance as a stallion, we tend to forget Tapit the racehorse. He ran only six times and won three. After winning the 2004 Laurel Futurity, he battled a sore shin and then a lung infection before his dazzling Wood, in which he came from last under Ramon Dominguez to beat Master David by half a length.

A sloppy track at Churchill Downs compromised Tapit’s chances in the subsequent Kentucky Derby, and he ran only twice after that before retiring to stand his first season at stud for a $15,000 fee.

But take note, Gonzaga believers. Tapit may have lost those battles, but he has had the last word. With sons and daughters like Frosted, Creator, Untapable, Stardom Bound, Hansen, Ring Weekend, Constitution, Tapiture, Joyful Victory, and Mohaymen, he has been a champion stallion twice, and his fee for 2017 is $300,000.

“He was a lovely horse to train,” Dickinson added. “It’s only a matter of time before he sires a Derby winner.”