Saturday, May 1, 2004

Dickinson's unique ways breed success

His Tapit among today's favorites

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LOUISVILLE - Michael Dickinson arrived Wednesday and unrolled the strips of his homegrown, organically mixed sod; installed the air purifier in Tapit's stall; and mixed the Guinness beer and eggs into his horse's feed. Ah ... portable paradise.

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At least, that's the thinking behind such eccentricities from the trainer dubbed the "Mad Genius" by the racing press. The 54-year-old Englishman, saddling his first Derby horse today, has gone to extreme degrees to care for his horses.

It has paid off with a fantastic 24.2 winning percentage since coming to America in 1987. Growing respect for his success is why the lightly raced Tapit will be one of the favorites today.

"He does things unconventionally, but it works for him," Derby handicapper Mike Battaglia said. "I have tremendous respect for him."

Dickinson built a state-of-the-art training center on 200 acres in North East, Md., which opened in 1998. It includes three turf tracks - used under dry, normal or wet conditions - and a dirt surface that includes a secret recipe Dickinson had patented.

The farm has 50 acres of paddocks, 100 acres of cross country riding trails and an irrigation pond. The stalls have skylights with double-glaze windows designed to retain heat in the winter and allow ultraviolet rays to kill bacteria.

"It's tough at the track to get an edge," Dickinson said. "You've got to be really good to rise above the rest. I'm trying to give myself an edge and also trying to give the horses a better life."

For years in America, Dickinson had only modest success. Then he guided Da Hoss to victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile in both 1996 and '98, despite the horse having just one race in between. Cetewayo won a Grade I stakes for him at age 8, in a career that included two lengthy layoffs.

That earned him the Mad Genius tag, one he doesn't dispute. "I've been called a lot worse," he said.

Dickinson is a celebrity in England, where his training achievements landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records and earned him audiences with the royal family. In four years training steeplechase horses, he was the champion trainer three times, won 12 races in one day and saddled the first five finishers of the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup - the Kentucky Derby of steeplechase racing.

He began training thoroughbreds for British racing kingpin Robert Sangster but was fired after two years. Instead of returning to steeplechase, he came to America to prove he could succeed with thoroughbreds.

No matter what further feats he conjures, Dickinson doesn't believe he'll inspire copycats.

"They'll spend every dollar you make," he said of training centers. "And it takes every minute of the day. I love my farm, and it suits me, but it wouldn't suit many people. It's a passion."



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