03/17/2011 12:34PM

Q&A: Michael Dickinson

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Photos by Z

Former trainer, he retired to oversee Tapeta Footings, a synthetic surface he created. Tapeta is the surface over which the Dubai World Cup will be run next Saturday, March 26, at Meydan in Dubai.

Birthdate: Feb. 3, 1950, in Yorkshire, England

Family: wife, Joan Wakefield

What was the impetus for you to develop a synthetic surface? “During my days as a steeplechase rider I spent the summers with Vincent O’Brien, who, as well as training 40 champion racehorses, was the creator of an all-weather surface, and he ignited my passion for surfaces. In the 28 years he trained at Ballydoyle, there were only two fatalities, and the two summers I spent there, I can never remember seeing a lame horse. For people to send him a million-dollar yearling, he had to have a safe surface to train on.”

How long did you tinker with surfaces and materials before coming up with the mix you are using for Tapeta? “I’ve been playing with surfaces for 25 years, but before we started training at my Tapeta Farm in Maryland, I knew I had to have a good surface to make it fly. Injuries are obviously the worst part of a trainer’s life, but when one happens, I wanted to be able to assure myself that I had done everything I could to try and prevent it. I thought it would take me three months, but it took me four years and 52 different formulas before I trained with the new Tapeta. We then won eight Grade  1 races in eight years training on Tapeta before we started marketing it. Therefore, I was my own guinea pig.”

You are currently in Dubai. How much time do you spend there a year? “I spend two weeks in November, and the months of February and March. I really love my time here.”

Do you feel that Meydan utilizing Tapeta is, thus far, the pinnacle of Tapeta’s acceptance? “Obviously, winning the Meydan contract against huge companies from around the world was gratifying. But even more pleasing is that the jockeys and trainers from all over the globe love the surface.”

Any advice for the World Cup card? “The track for the whole season has been playing safe, fair, and formful. Horses have been winning from inside and outside draws, on the lead, in the middle, or deep closers. Most dirt horses but not all will be able to perform well on the Tapeta. Some big bettors using the Daily Racing Form past performances and modern handicapping methods have been able to make a lot of money. At the Breeders’ Cup, with the best American horses and a few from England, Ireland, and France, the races are always very difficult to win. But on Dubai World Cup night they are even more difficult, because horses are coming from 20 different nations, including Japan, Hong Kong, South Africa, and Australia. Most people feel that it is an advantage to ship early. I think it’s smart that the Americans are coming in a week and a half ahead of time this year. It’s a long way from the USA, and horses need time to recover. A work over the track is a help. Kinsale King proved it can be done.”

As you know, many handicappers in the United States have found synthetic surfaces challenging: “I find it quite extraordinary that some bettors in the U.S. still say that they cannot get a handle on synthetics. It was understandable that they should have been wary when the surfaces were first introduced, because that was the British experience when all-weather racing started there over 20 years ago. A number of big bettors were reluctant to wager at their usual levels until they could satisfy themselves that results were formful. What they soon discovered was that they need not have been concerned. Why U.S. bettors have not had the same experience as their British counterparts is a mystery to me. The fact is that serious punters in Britain and Hong Kong or wherever bet more adventurously than Americans. It is arguable that form on synthetics is generally closer to turf form than to dirt, so anyone who can handicap grass races and bet on them successfully should have no fears about betting on synthetics.”

It’s not just bettors, but trainers and breeders are apprehensive here regarding synthetics compared to Europe or Dubai. Why do you think that is? “If all synthetics had been as good as Presque Isle Downs we would all be much happier. At Presque Isle we had three fatalities from 800 races and 6,332 starters in 2010. They have had no equine ambulance runs since it opened four years ago, not even to take a slightly lame horse off the track. They are good horsemen. Lovely people. You need a good track and good horsemen. They deserve some of the credit. The trainers who complain most about synthetics are the same ones who use larger toe grabs the most. It gives them an edge on dirt even though it causes more injuries, but it does not give them an edge on synthetics. They’ve had 100 years to perfect dirt tracks, and they haven’t got it right yet. Do they need another 100 years? During Santa Anita’s last spring meeting on dirt, before they put in a synthetic surface, there were 20 fatalities. On synthetic, there were only two. Game, set, and match. Some breeders are pro synthetic, and some are not. If I owned three dirt stallions and 20 dirt group mares, I certainly wouldn’t want to lose any dirt tracks. Americans love dirt. There’s not a chance they are going to change soon. But none of the other major nations race primarily on dirt, nor allow medication.”

What other racetracks and training centers currently have installed Tapeta? “In the USA our major installations are Presque Isle, Golden Gate Fields, Fair Hill Training Center − where Breeders’ Cup winner Informed Decision was trained − Sagamore Farm, Applestone Farm, and, of course, Tapeta Farm. Our track at Presque Isle Downs has been very successful. Jonathan Sheppard trained many of his best horses at Presque Isle before going on to win stakes at Saratoga and Arlington. Mark Johnston in England trains on Tapeta, and for the last two years he has trained more winners there than any other trainer in the last 200 years. We’ve just installed a track in Japan, and we also have tracks in Singapore, Korea, Saudi Arabia, and the UK.”

Any more on the horizon? “We have no impending business in North America on the horizon, but Dubai was our shop window to the world and as a result we are busy overseas. In fact, we are hoping to put a track in Tasmania.”

Do all Tapeta tracks have material in the same combination, or are there adjustments made for each place owing to factors such as climate? “Of course our tracks vary from country to country, but more importantly they are evolving and improving each year. In July 2009, I obtained a sample of 200-year-old turf from Newmarket Race Course in the U.K. and took it to a sports university near London and asked them to compare it with Tapeta. After three months of tests, their recommendations were, ‘Keep Tapeta tight on top and soft underneath.’ This only makes common sense, as any trainer will tell you any surface − dirt, turf, or synthetic − should not be hard, nor loose and cuppy. Although I have been working with Tapeta for 12 years, I am still willing to learn, and that is why we changed our maintenance program in 2010. Since that time, we have hired a top human sports bio-mechanist, who analyzed 15 horses breezing on turf and on Tapeta on the same day with the same rider, using high speed filming and markers on the horses. Some of the critics say that horses don’t ‘slide’ on synthetics, but the results show that they slide the exact same on a well-maintained Tapeta as they do on good turf.”

You had great success training steeplechase runners and then flat runners, before embarking on this stage of your career. Do you miss training? “I do not miss training because I really enjoy my new life, but I love horses and I could not live without them. I see them almost every day training on my track, wherever I am. I didn’t want to give up training, but my wife had some health issues and that is why we changed. She’s doing well now.”

What gave you greater satisfaction − sweeping the first five spots in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup, or winning the second Breeders’ Cup Mile in 1998 with Da Hoss? “The second Breeders’ Cup with Da Hoss.”

How gratifying is it for you to see the success Tapit, whom you trained, has had at stud? “I’m not at all surprised that Tapit has been a huge success at stud. One of the reasons why our team bought him was because he had three successful stallions in his pedigree.”

Best horse trained? “Da Hoss.”

Best horse seen? “Nijinsky II.”

Hobbies? “I play soccer twice a week. Obviously, I’m not quite as quick as the 25-year-olds I play with, but I’m well able to play 45 minutes each way.”

Future ambitions? “To improve Tapeta.”