In the office, around the barn or out on the roads and horse paths of his Tapeta Farm in Cecil County, Maryland, Michael Dickinson talks fast. He walks fast. He drives fast. But he might plan and think and dream even faster.
And it’s that pace which drives him in a return to training and a substantial expansion to the facilities at Tapeta after eight years on the sidelines. Some of it – like the whistle around his neck and the lying flat on his back on the turf gallop – is for show, some is just him. It’s all a relatively different take on training racehorses, complete with doses of modern science and old-school horsemanship.
The old Tapeta Farm had a bright, breezy barn, ample turnout paddocks, six turf gallops, a meandering, inclined training track made of Dickinson’s patented Tapeta synthetic surface, an eight-horse free exerciser and all the wide-open spaces a horse could want. The new version has all that plus a “performance center” with cold saltwater spa, salt vapor therapy room, vibration plate, a soon-to-be-installed hyperbaric chamber and more.
Aiming for the spring turf season (for starters), Dickinson has 10 horses in his care and hopes to see more soon filling up the 40-stall barn south of North East along the Chesapeake Bay.
He wants quality, of the likes of Grade 1 winners Da Hoss, Tapit, Cetawayo, Fleet Renee and A Huevo who fueled his barn to 589 wins from 1989 through 2007. The victories came in two Breeders’ Cup Miles, the Wood Memorial, Delaware Handicap, Mother Goose, Ashland, Laurel Futurity, West Virginia Derby, Sword Dancer, Fourstardave and more. He stopped training in 2007 to devote more time to his Tapeta (Latin for carpet) Footings company and watched it grow into the global leader in synthetic racing and training surfaces with installations in 10 countries.
He put Tapeta Farm on the market as a turnkey training operation, and got no takers, but he didn’t leave racing. And the connection made him a trainer again.
Tuesday, at a press open house featuring staffers from the New York Times, Philadelphia Daily News and The Baltimore Sun, he explained why.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I can do better (than last time),” he said. “When I gave up training, I had no intention of training again. I got all these ideas and I got refreshed.”
The refreshed Dickinson handed the Tapeta Footings operations to his wife Joan Wakefield, and set about trying to figure out how to improve his training operation. The stable won at 23-percent clip based at Fair Hill Training Center and later Tapeta for 19 years in the United States after English success over jumps and on the flat.
Dickinson doesn’t think he ran his horses often enough back then. He hopes the modern world helps him get more out of each horse now.
“I hate getting beat and before they were going to get beat (I wouldn’t run),” he said “I don’t like sending them out to battle unless they’re absolutely completely ready for it.”
He added technology to the farm, upgraded the Tapeta gallop to the newest Tapeta 10 mixture (for the 10 improvements made) and continues to tinker with other areas such as moveable round pens on wheels, a swimming pond and a slew of high-tech-sounding items including an auxiliary energy system (for horses not the grid), a bio-mechanical analyzer, a bronchial delivery system and a bio-marker identification kit.
There’s more, but the key might be Dickinson himself and his ability to attract owners and provide for horses – on a farm, in open spaces, with variations on the theme. A horse at Tapeta can get turned out, roll in the sand, gallop uphill on specially grown/groomed turf strips (for normal weather, dry weather and wet weather), warm up left-handed and right-handed on a half-mile oval, hack through the woods, swim in a pond, walk in a free walker and gallop on a top-of-the-line synthetic surface. It’s a long way from 40 stalls at the average American racetrack, though not all that different from life at a training center. Tapeta Farm has pretty much everything Fair Hill Training Center has, but it’s all Dickinson’s.
“My goal is to fill this barn full of good horses,” he said. “If they’re average horses . . . this was designed for good horses. It’s been a huge personal expense for me. I can safely say horses are going to be happier here with the environment we have and the turnouts and everything. The question is will they win more races training here or at the racetrack?”
Dickinson, 66, hopes to answer that question. He made a list of 26 “levers” he can pull that a trainer at a racetrack can’t. The list may fall short or far exceed the number – and spans imported natural herbs, grass that’s free of mold, and two on-staff equine physiotherapists among other items – but the point is Dickinson is different.
“They’ve got no room, no privacy, no freedom,” he said of racetrack trainers. “I’ve got hills, six turf tracks, the windows in the stalls I think are huge for the fresh air. I’ve got freedom, space and privacy. And no pressure from the racing secretary.”
Dickinson hoped to have a dirt horse or two in his first lot of trainees, but will wait for the turf based on some early work. He was headed to South Carolina to look at some 2-year-olds for a potential client this week and expects to be active at the Mid-Atlantic tracks and into New York come spring. The staff on hand Tuesday included longtime assistant Michelle (Penman) Hamrick, plus former champion steeplechase jockey Xavier Aizpuru (whose recent credits include time with Graham Motion, Team Valor and Tom Proctor) and former Jonathan Sheppard assistant Jim Bergen.
“A few owners have said they’re going to send me some (horses),” he said. “Until they show up here in the horse vans, you never know. I think this first year we’ll have mainly 2-year-olds and 2-year-olds don’t run that much. I have no idea what to expect.”
Watch a horse charge up the Tapeta gallop: