09/13/2007 11:00PM

Trainer doubles as salesman

EmailThere is something about the life of Michael Dickinson that lends itself to the dramatic. Whether or not Dickinson wants it that way is subject to debate. Let's just say that he has, from time to time, put himself in a spot where lightning is likely to strike.

The broad strokes of Dickinson's story have become racing lore. Every British schoolchild can recite the litany of the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup, when Master Michael saddled the first five finishers under the line. He had just turned 33.

In 1998, Dickinson provided his American fans with a legend they could call their own, by bringing the fairy-tale gelding Da Hoss back from two years in the wilderness with one modest little prep to win his second title in the Breeders' Cup Mile.

There have been many other noteworthy acts of horsemanship in the Dickinson gallery, with runners such as A Heuvo, Cetawayo, Fleet Renee, and Tapit. There also have been grand struggles with authority, featuring Dickinson in the role of Don Quixote, tilting against such hardened establishment foes as the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the West Virginia Racing Commission, and the security structure of the Breeders' Cup itself.

For the last three years, however, Michael Dickinson the trainer has been relatively quiet. Racing from his corner of Maryland's Eastern Shore, Dickinson won just 25 races in 2005, 22 races in 2006, and only 11 so far this year going into the weekend. Not since 2004 has the stable grossed even the minimally acceptable sum of $1 million during a given year.

An explanation is required. Did Dickinson take up golf? Has he entered a seminary? Or did he seek sanctuary in some kind of witness protection program, designed to shelter burnt-out trainers?

Thankfully, the answer is none of the above (especially golf). Down in terms of Thoroughbred inventory, Dickinson has spent a healthy portion of his time selling his patented Tapeta racing surface to racetracks and training facilities around the world.

Presque Isle Downs in western Pennsylvania has presented the first competitive test of Tapeta during its current meet. And while reviews from horsemen have been uniformly positive, leave it to the Dickinson karma to level a psychological blow right out of the gate, when a horse suffered a fatal injury shortly after the start of the very first race run over the new surface.

"I was there, of course, and it was terrible," Dickinson said. "No one blamed the surface, but still, I was heartbroken for the poor horse. We can't eliminate injuries, but we can reduce them."

The second North American Tapeta track will make its debut at Golden Gate Fields in November. There are Tapeta surfaces at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland, the Al Quoz stables of Dubai, and at the fabled gallops of Newmarket in England. Singapore is also going synthetic with the Dickinson line.

According to his log, Dickinson has made about a dozen international trips this year alone, not to mention numerous continental crossings. On Friday morning he was at Presque Isle, where he was running a horse in a stakes on Saturday. He is not sure how long he can lead such a double life, as both trainer of horses and salesman for his synthetic surface. The difference, he says, is stark.

"As trainers, if we have 10 horses, if we're really good and really lucky, we'll only do good with five of them," Dickinson said. "With the other five, you go around making excuses. If we do 10 tracks, hopefully we can do 10 good tracks. So even if you do everything right as a trainer, it can still go wrong. But if one of our tracks goes wrong, you just have to look in the mirror. You can't say it's bad luck. You've only yourself to blame."

That, in a nutshell, describes a version of emotional paradise for a control freak like Dickinson. He is not the kind of trainer who would ever be comfortable with the sad mantra, "Oh well, that's racing," when something goes wrong. Instead, there have been years of sleepless nights, tossing, turning, and pacing the floor, desperately trying to anticipate every variable in terms of both preparation for and execution.

Now, with his new calling, it's all up to him. But Dickinson is not simply a commercialized proponent of a new technology. He is a true believer, a Bible-beating disciple of synthetic surfaces as the savior of the modern game.

"Dirt-track technology is a hundred years old, and everyone has been trying very hard the last 20 years," Dickinson said. "Most of the track superintendents are hardworking, conscientious people. But they've tried everything.

"Owners, trainers, and breeders all acknowledge that the modern Thoroughbred is more delicate than its predecessor," he added. "Given modern commercial breeding practices, the horse isn't going to change. Therefore, racetracks need to embrace modern technology, and we need to build a modern racetrack for the modern Thoroughbred."

The issue is still being argued, despite the conviction of Dickinson and others, and conventional dirt tracks will continue to have their backers. For the time being, Dickinson will continue to train horses, looking for the next Da Hoss, while spreading the gospel of synthetics. Whether or not he will end up CEO of his own company some day remains to be seen.

"Right now, I'd prefer FBMD," Dickinson said. "Just a farm boy from Maryland."