Michael Dickinson - "The Mad Genius"
By Frances Karon
Michael Dickinson is welcoming and instantly likeable, suffused with energy as he bounces around Tapeta Farm on the Chesapeake Bay in North East, Maryland. “I don’t say I’m good or great but I’m not boring,” he promises. Along that vein, the burning question is, why do people call him “The Mad Genius,” as coined by an American turf writer? Dickinson’s standard reply is that the nickname is “only half right,” without declaring which half. No relentless line of questioning will drag it out of him. “Who do you think you are, Barbara Walters?” he deadpans. “Or the guy with on CNN with the braces [suspenders]. Larry King.” What does his wife, Joan Wakefield, think? “Don’t answer that. Keep quiet! Could be divorce proceedings here!” teases her husband. She says only, “I know which half is right!” Draw your own conclusion. If he’s mad, or if he’s a genius, or if he’s both – he embraces it.
First, there is the interview. No, not this one. His interview of the writer who has arrived at his doorstep. It’s part of the process. He has made the appropriate phone calls, compiled a character reference and studied your transcript. He begins grilling immediately, disconcertingly scribbling away with the pen and paper he is never without. This is the quintessential Dickinson. The Mad Genius at work.
At heart, Dickinson is fundamentally curious. One of his many extraordinary features is his belief that there’s potential to learn something new or something better from everyone. He might not yet know what exactly that something is, but it is there, and he will find it.
The third generation horseman is from Yorkshire, England. His father and grandfather before him, and his mother after, were trainers. His father “was very low key and didn’t want the big lights. He was happy just churning out winners.” His mother, “Mrs. D” as Dickinson affectionately calls her, “was one of the best horsewomen England’s ever produced, and that’s a huge statement. She was selected to showjump for Great Britain, and she was one of the best of her time. She was a very good point-to-point rider, the best of her era. Then she started to train on her own for three years when I went to Manton and Dad was sick. She won the King George, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the Welsh Grand National, the Whitbread. Yes, there’d been good female trainers; yes, there’d been good point-to-point riders, and there’d been good showjumpers, but nobody excelled in all three disciplines.”
Dickinson began riding over fences, and in his first season emulated his father as champion amateur jockey. He was also fifth in the overall jockey’s standings, “which was perhaps higher than I should have been. I rode five winners at the Cheltenham Festival, and there were better riders than me who rode less, so that was an achievement. Dad was a North Country trainer and I was a North Country jockey and we weren’t high profile. To have a couple of runners at Cheltenham was magnificent. We walked in ten feet tall, “oh, we’ve got arunner.” And weren’t we so pleased and proud to have a runner! If it ran well, oh, it was great. And then by the end, if we didn’t have a winner we were ready to jump off the grandstand.” He continued riding competitively for ten years. “I loved it. The only thing I didn’t like was the dieting, because I had to be 140 pounds and my natural weight was 168 pounds. The falls never worried me. You never worry about the pain, you just worry because you can’t eat all day. People, if they wanted to be kind, said I was good over a fence.” And if they didn’t want to be kind? “Well, they’d say I wasn’t very strong in a finish. That was fair comment. I was too tall and I was a bit weak because I was 140 pounds and I’d have been tired at the end.” After a fall at Cartmel left him 20 minutes from death, Dickinson traded in jockey’s license for trainer’s license. Remarkably, the whip he had used for ten years was sold at the “nearly new shop.”
“I never thought I’d be top trainer,” he concedes. “I just wanted to be consistently in the top ten every year. They like saying I’m famous for the Gold Cup, but that was just one race.” He closed out his brief steeplechase training career with three consecutive championship titles each by money won and by number of wins. There is some confusion as to whether he holds five, or “only” four, Guinness World records based on his exploits with the jumpers, primarily because he is not ego-driven. “I’ve got some accomplishments and they’re about that thick.” Dickinson neatly pinches the tips of his thumb and forefinger close together. “I’ve got another book with my mistakes and it’s that thick” – moving his hands exaggeratedly far apart – “and I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about them.”
His meteoric domination of the steeplechasing segued into becoming private trainer for Robert Sangster at Manton. Though he had switched to flat racing, Michael was facing insurmountable hurdles in his new job with a yard full of backward juveniles. “One of my work riders came to me and said, ‘Michael, you’re doing too much with these two-year-olds.’ And another rider came to me and said, ‘You’re not doing enough with these horses. They’re not going to win like that.’ Who was right? Well they were both right.” That was in the same year Lester Piggott struck out as a trainer, and “the bookies were betting on who was going to train the most winners, Lester or me. At the beginning of the season, Sir Peter O’Sullevan – a great man – came, had a look around, saw the two-year-olds and saw all the new gallops which needed a bit more time and he went out and had a big bet on Lester. He said, ‘Michael, you’ve got no chance. I’ve seen the two-year-olds, and they’re all big, tall, Nijinsky-type gangly things.’ So we knew in March we were in trouble because Sir Peter, apart from being an excellent racecaller, is a very shrewd betting man.” Six months into the season, Sangster fired Dickinson. “We didn’t have enough winners. We had Golden Fleeces and Kings Lakes, which weren’t good stallions, so that was part of it. I’m not blaming Robert for that. Losing a job’s not the end of the world. Losing my reputation was.”
As is often the case with such seemingly devastating setbacks, Dickinson reflects on it as “the best thing that happened. I still love visiting England but I couldn’t have been as happy. I like the freedom in America.” With help from Dr. David Lambert, Dickinson attended the Calder juvenile sale and was in business. He set up shop at Fair Hill in Maryland that year, in 1987, and stayed until Tapeta Farm was completed in 1998 to his exact, and exacting, specifications, right down to the in-house synthetic footing.
Tapeta Farm is a culmination of a dream germinated 25 years before its inception. Dickinson still calls his summers with Vincent O’Brien at Ballydoyle in the early 70s “the two happiest of my life.” He pulls out a notebook that is so old it had cost 10 pence, filled with meticulous notes dating back to his days with O’Brien, who may have been a quiet man but has through Dickinson’s observations an eloquent verbosity. Other notebooks follow, including the one in which he chronicled his three week “vacation” in California with Charlie Whittingham during jump racing’s off season in 1983.
At Ballydoyle, “The penny dropped, and I suddenly realised whey everyone sent [O’Brien] their million-dollar yearlings, because he didn’t break them down. There were no sore horses. He ignited my passion for surfaces. Ballydoyle is a magnificent environment and Tapeta Farm is just copying what an Irishman did many years ago.” Whittingham told Dickinson, “You’ll end up going on the flat.” When Dickinson responded, “I don’t think I’ll make the transition,” the Bald Eagle rebutted, “I’m sure you will,” with confidence. “He was a lovely guy, wasn’t he? Everyone liked Charlie. But I was only with Charlie for three weeks, so Vincent had more effect on me.” Yet there was a common thread in both these great trainers, whose words laid the foundation for the Tapeta surface. The most well-worn page in his Whittingham notebook is where he jotted down Whittingham’s oft-repeated phrase: “A bad turf track is better than a good dirt track.”
Touring the farm on foot is like taking a nature walk in the woods. On the 7 furlong synthetic course, the Tapeta mixture underfoot coaxes up to a steady incline which, in the summer heat, is tiring. You begin to understand how the miracle of Da Hoss came together here well before reaching the undulating turf course, which is another product of Dickinson’s “genius” half. It is comprised of three strips of different types of grass providing ideal training ground for normal, drought and flood conditions. Earlier, Dickinson had demonstrated the quality of the “mattress” that is his turf by lying down on it. “That goes along with the public perception that I’m just a bit mad, you know, lying on the grass. They would love that, wouldn’t they?”
Near the end of the solitary hike under the searing sun and thinking of the photo shoot, I take a breather on the turf mattress and mentally play back a conversation about Da Hoss. Dickinson and his partner of 27 years – and wife of two years, Joan Wakefield – agree that their greatest day came courtesy of a win by Da Hoss in the Breeders’ Cup Mile but they squabble over a triviality: for Wakefield, that day came at Woodbine in 1996, and for Dickinson, it was Churchill in 1998.
The 1996 Breeders’ Cup brings us to an urban legend we must debunk. The popular horsemen’s sheet Indian Charlie [motto: “We Never Let The Truth Get In The Way Of A Good Story”] has made the spectacle of Michael Dickinson wearing high heels well known to all backstretch denizens.
Dickinson sets up the story. “Forty years ago I was riding in a big hurdle race, and I was dating a model who came to the race in a cocktail dress and a pair of heels. She walked around with me, bless her, and I said, ‘I’m going to come up the left-hand side.’ And she says, ‘Oh no, I’d come down on the right. My high heels go in much more on the left than on the right.’ So by accident I learned that one way to test soft ground was high heels.” Incidentally, he won.
Decades later in Canada, inspecting the turf ahead of the race, Dickinson turned to his partner and said, “This is no good. You’re going to have to buy a pair of heels.” Wakefield dutifully approached a saleswoman at a nearby Shoe Barn. “I need a pair of the highest, thinnest stilettos that you can find. It doesn’t matter what colour they are, it doesn’t matter what size they are, as long as I can get them on my feet.” Within minutes, Wakefield had bought a pair of plastic red shoes to match the colour in her face at having to wear them, and three of them began to walk the course again with what Dickinson calls “science – the penetrometer; the old-fashioned stick; and the by accident high heels. It was important. I mean, you can’t be casual about it!” None less casual than Wakefield, accompanying the men for three circuits around the track in stilettos. “She made a speech and complained and I said, ‘Marilyn Monroe had high heels and she never complained!’”
“Yes, but she didn’t walk turf tracks, either! It’s not easy walking on soft turf with high heels. The other thing was, I said to Michael, that if anybody saw me…” says Wakefield. “This was October in Toronto, and there I am in open-toed plastic shoes and I said, ‘If anybody seems me I’m going to kill you.’ So we get around, and as we’re turning into the straight all of a sudden the horses come out on the track. We’d forgotten, or didn’t know, that it was twilight racing so they were coming out for the first race, and of course they’d seen us walking the track so Michael very kindly pointed me out to the cameras, pointed at me in those ridiculous bright red stilettos.”
“They’d be worth a lot of money now, wouldn’t they, Joan? They’d have been a collector’s item. But she threw them away.” Indeed, Wakefield confesses, “They were in the trash in Toronto. I was mortified!” Nevertheless, they had served their purpose, and Dickinson drew a detailed map for Gary Stevens to follow and told him, “We know you’re a world-class jockey but it’s rained for ten days and three of us have walked the track three times, which is nine circuits, so please allow us to impart you knowledge. We’re giving you some fairly difficult instructions and if it doesn’t work I will take full responsibility.” The plan was executed brilliantly.
Bright red plastic stilettos aside, the 1996 Mile is Wakefield’s favorite. Dickinson puffs up with melodramatic apoplexy, but his wife stands her ground. “Churchill was very stressful because he’d had a lot of problems and we expected him to win. That makes it stressful.”
Dickinson counters. “Well, I thought Churchill was easy. I knew he was 100%. We had him spot on because you and Miguel and Jon-Boy did such a good job with him. I knew he was spot on, and that was it.” Dickinson dances around the room impersonating announcer Tom Durkin: “Mark of Esteem’s got a lot to do but it’s the American Da Hoss…” Wakefield: “In da mile!” Dickinson: “And Spinning World is trying to reel him in! Oh my, this is the greatest comeback since Lazarus!”
Not having raced since the Breeders’ Cup at Woodbine, soundness and fitness were a concern for the then-6-year-old gelding, and Dickinson entered Da Hoss in an allowance race at Colonial Downs. “Six weeks before the race two good vets got together and said that this horse wouldn’t make the first race, let alone the second. But he was a miracle.” Twenty-three months following his previous start, Da Hoss won an allowance in Virginia but only made first reserve on the list of 1998 Mile entrants. “I wrote to the selection committee and I said, ‘This horse is better than he’s ever been, better than he was two years ago.’ Of course they didn’t believe me. ‘How can he be?’ [Colonial’s] Lenny Hale stood up for him, because he’d seen him win.”
On the first day of every month for that entire year, Gary Stevens’ agent Ron Anderson received a phone call from Michael Dickinson. “You will ride my horse in the Breeders’ Cup, won’t you?” “Yeah, yeah,” Anderson would reply, until October, when Anderson had a different answer. “Oh no, we can’t ride. We’re riding [Among Men] for Sir Michael Stoute.” Dickinson says, “If you were Ron Anderson what would you do? The other’s just won a Grade 1 and Da Hoss hasn’t run for two years. It was the right decision by him, really.” Yet Dickinson had so much faith in his horse he suggested a Da Hoss vs. Among Men wager between him and Anderson. “I’ll bet you now $1,000, wherever we finish, whether it’s first and second, or last and next to last, we’ll finish in front of that.”
Da Hoss drew in to the mile with John Velasquez named to ride. At the press party on Thursday, Da Hoss’ head man Miguel and exercise rider Jon “Jon-Boy” Ferriday surrounded Stevens. “Big mistake!” they told him. “And Gary was beside himself because there was so much conviction in what they were saying.” On Saturday, “We went to see Johnny at ten o’clock in the morning. I said, ‘Johnny, I know you’ve got a lot of rides today but you’re going to ride a winner and it’s going to be Da Hoss.’ I was crying at the time because I was so emotional, because I knew he was spot on, and I knew he would win. I felt really proud. I wasn’t worried.” Da Hoss nosed out Hawksley Hill (Ire) with Among Men unplaced, and Anderson paid up right away. “Well what could I do?” he said to Dickinson of his decision. “We hadn’t seen your horse for two years!” Dickinson split the thousand between Da Hoss’ Miguel and Ferriday.
In contrast to the ‘ease’ of running a horse against the world’s best competition after a two year absence, Dickinson was never more nervous than before what historical annals call the “Famous Five,” a.k.a. 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup, when he saddled Bregawn, Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House to fill the first five places home. “I thought we might be sort of second, third and fourth but not win the race, so I was nervous as hell. And I knew my best horse wasn’t at his best.” Wakefield offers up her assessment of his nerves. “A couple of weeks before Cheltenham he’d won an award and had to go up to London. He put a suit on and I said, ‘My God, Michael, you are so skinny it’s unbelievable. How much weight have you lost?’ I mean, it looked like he forgot to take the coat hanger out because it was just pure bones.’” He’d shed 14 pounds.
Of his many amazing training accomplishments, what does Michael Dickinson consider the greatest? “Most people would say the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but the best horse only finished fourth that day, Silver Buck. He won it the year before, so I didn’t do a good job with him. I failed. I asked him to go into battle and he wasn’t at his best, and I felt guilty for it. I still do now.” He’s not lying. Here in his office, 25 years after the fact, his eyes tear up. “His owner came to me after. She had the best horse in the race and he finished fourth, but she couldn’t have been any nicer. She was so pleased for me. And you know, I was crying for her because I’d let her down. I’d let the horse down. Afterwards, it wasn’t elation. It was just…relief. It wasn’t, ‘Wow, this is great!’ It was just, ‘Thank God for that.’”
One word Dickinson uses infrequently when discussing his successes is “I.” “People,” he says, “always say you, but we had a great team. My father used to say that you can read what you want in the press clippings but don’t believe them, and Joan’s always been the same. She’s always kept me firmly in hand.” Wakefield asserts that he has relaxed in their 27 years together. “He never, ever used to sit and eat a meal. I’d put a meal in front of him, he’d take a bite, he’d get up, he’d make a telephone call, he’d wander around the house, he’d come back in, he’d sit down and play with it a little bit. He’d get up and wander off. He was a nightmare back then. He’s relaxed now to what he used to be.”
“You’ve got to have fun in your life, haven’t you?” With Wakefield, he does, and by the sound and look of it they have done from the time they began dating. They met at Wetherby Racecourse, through the cousin of a friend. “Michael always manages to find somebody to drive him because he doesn’t like driving, so Chris drove him and in between races with Michael running backwards and forwards between the saddling area and the jockey’s room Chris and six girls all stood in the middle. Michael stops and says to Chris, ‘How is it you always get all the women?’ and we got quick introductions. ‘This is Joan Wakefield. Her father builds horseboxes.’ We met for about 30 seconds. Two weeks later apparently he had got my dad’s name and called him at work and said, ‘Can you tell me where I can get hold of Joan Wakefield?’ I was obviously in the bad books that day so my father’s reply was, ‘Around the bloody neck!” which Michael thought was highly hilarious and proceeded to tell everybody in the racing world. Anyway, we decided to meet at the Wetherby roundabout at the hotel in the car park. By this time a couple of weeks have gone by.”
“We’re walking up the street there,” breaks in Michael. “I’m walking up one side of the street and she’s walking up the other and we didn’t recognise each other. I said, ‘Oh, are you Joan?’”
“So I get in the back of the car” – one of Michael’s riders was driving – “and he turns around and he looks at me and says, ‘What have you done to your hair? When I met you you had long, flowing blond locks.’ I said, ‘You’ve got the wrong one. I’ve never had long, flowing blond locks.’”
“I had six to choose from, and I chose the wrong one! Mistaken identity!”
“And how dare you ask me what I’ve done to my hair.” Dickinson had gotten aperm. “I said to him, ‘Michael, it’s bad enough looking at you with a perm, but I cannot for the life of me imagine you sitting in the hairdresser’s with all the rollers in!’ The press started nicknaming him ‘Demiwave Dickie.’”
At the end of 2007, Dickinson retired from training and put Tapeta Farm for sale. “It’s unique,” he says. “It’s easily the best private training center in America, and the only one on the East Coast between Washington, D.C. and New York, which is where all the racetracks are. It’s a great place to train. You just do what you want. If it’s raining, you can go in, have a cup of tea and play cards and wait for it to stop raining and then go and train.” The team now focuses entirely on their Tapeta surface.
Blending the first successful formula for Tapeta was harrowing. “I thought,” he says, “it would take me three months and it took me four years.” Give up? “I couldn’t.” Near the end, “we mixed all day. We started at six in the morning and stopped at two o’clock the next morning. I got up to see and it was terrible. The dream of my farm had blown up, and my ego took a beating.” They hit it on the next try, but the original mix has continued to evolve after he threw the gauntlet at Wakefield: “Here’s my product. Make it better. Learn all you can about sand, wax, fibers and rubber. And you’d better know more than anybody else, and you better be damn good at it.” The result is that they’ve gotten progressively “better every year.”
Dickinson denies being a perfectionist. “I’m old enough to realize perfection is never obtainable. It’s not worth killing yourself trying to get a ten out of ten, because it’s never attainable. So you just have to be happy with 8s and 9s out of ten.” Then why is he still fine-tuning his Tapeta surface? “I want to be better. I’m not a perfectionist because I know I can’t get there but I do the best I can.”
“There’s a big difference between training and building tracks. If a trainer is really good, and if he’s really lucky – say he has ten horses – he’ll probably do quite well with five of them, and the other five won’t do well. You’re all the time going around apologising for them. Even when you do everything right it can blow up in your face. And then trainers tend to beat ourselves up by saying, ‘If I hadn’t done that we’d have been alright.’ How many times do we say that? We all make mistakes, and very often afterwards it’s not the trainer’s fault. It just didn’t work out. But it’s not always black and white. You can’t definitely say, ‘It’s not my fault.’ It’s very easy to blame everybody else but deep down you’ve always got to take some responsibility. So I used to beat myself up and think, ‘Why did I do that?’” The self-proclaimed non-perfectionist asserts that a perfect win percentage is now possible. “If I do ten tracks, I can do ten good tracks, and I can go ten-for-ten. If it’s not a good track I’ve just got to look in the mirror. It was my fault and I go and fix it. If it does fail it’s my fault, where you could train a horse perfectly and it fails.”
Tapeta is featured at Golden Gate Fields, Presque Isle Downs, training centres such as the nearby Fair Hill, and in Dubai, England, Korea, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. Dickinson makes a case for replacing conventional dirt surfaces. “Why is the manager of an American racetrack going to spend a lot of money on a new track? First of all, it’s safest for jockeys. Two, it’s reduced injuries to the horses, which will help fill the barn area. The horses can run more often, leading to bigger fields and a bigger mutuel handle with no sloppy tracks. Owners trying to protect their investment want to go where the horse can last its longest and where when it’s finished racing he’s got a saleable horse. And then there’s litigation. Synthetics are proven to be safer, and you’ve got to be seen doing everything you can. The last thing is peace of mind. Priceless. You’re doing everything you can as a racetrack manager, and that is peace of mind.”
The market for synthetics can be fickle. After last year’s deluge at the Breeders’ Cup led to the fatal breakdown of George Washington (Ire), “the world saw the imperfections of dirt. That can happen to any dirt track any time. It wasn’t Monmouth Park’s fault, and I’m not blaming Monmouth. Any dirt track can turn into that.” However, interest soon waned after the well-documented problems at Santa Anita, which is not a Tapeta surface. Months of silence were broken after the very public fallout afterEight Belles. “The people who were on the fence went quiet after Santa Anita in January but now they’re all back in action again.”
Dickinson’s product is more than a racing surface; his pride and passion are part and parcel of any Tapeta deal, and he often travels to check on his tracks. “My feet can tell me. I like to feel it and I like to have a little dig with my hands. I like to run on them because I can tell how they perform when I run on them. I try and go barefoot whenever I can, but I don’t do it in the winter, and I can’t do it in the summer because it gets too hot.” A barefoot man running around racetrack doesn’t always go over well with an unsuspecting security detail, which inevitably gives chase. Once, he told the guards, “If you can’t catch a 58-year-old man I don’t feel sorry for you!” Another time, running in the evening, “This guy comes over in his truck and drives along next to me, stops and comes out in his uniform and says, ‘Please tell me you work here!’” His favorite incident was in Korea. “You know, I don’t look like many Koreans. I’m running around in my shorts testing it out and the security man was absolutely freaking out. He was peddling as fast as he could on his bike blowing his whistle” – Dickinson blows an imaginary whistle – “absolutely freaking out having about three heart attacks at once.” The man didn’t speak English, and Dickinson kept on going.
With training roots in two major racing countries and the ever-expanding reach of Tapeta, where does he see our sport headed? He believes, not surprisingly, that synthetics are going to become more prevalent as they improve, and that the ProCush whip mandatory in England and U.S. steeplechases will gain popularity in North America. The Europeans exercise strict rules on overuse of the whip, and Dickinson says, “That’s the way it needs to be. No one’s ever been called up for not hitting the horse enough.” From a health-of-the-industry angle, he sees a better product in England, where “the punter has tremendous choice. Some would argue that the bookmakers take too much out of racing and don’t give enough back. However, they do a marvelous job of marketing our sport. They take it to the public, they take it to the betting offices and they started SIS. I remember when we were at school, we would start betting on the Derby and the Grand National six months before. That’s always fun to try and have a pound on a horse at 500-1 six months before the race. Contrast America with the Kentucky Derby. Of 700 horses entered in February, we can only bet on 17 of them. It’s pathetic. We did better with the quill and ink 40 years ago than the so-called computers are doing now. In America, we don’t have a good enough racing product to make it attractive for enough bettors, and that’s a big stumbling block. We are handicapped, and the racetracks have to conduct their betting with 50-year-old laws which are way outdated.
“I enjoy racing anywhere around the world,” he goes on to say. “Arc Day in France is good. I don’t think there’s anything more exciting than Dubai World Cup Day. That’s terrific. After the fourth race they have a tremendous show there – fireworks, acrobats. And they have 19 nations competing, so that’s exciting. I’d like to see the Breeders’ Cup do more to entice more people from around the world.”
With an undocumented number of high-profile racehorses on a legal steroid regiment, Big Brown has become the unwitting poster child for Winstrol. While the arguments persist on the drug’s possible healthful benefits, Dickinson’s stance is that it needs to go if for no other reason than “it’s a bad perception. The public don’t like it. We’ve used anabolic steroids for the last 20 years but it’s going to be abolished in 2009 anyhow.” His opinion on Lasix is that “it’s a kind drug, because when a horse bleeds it hurts him. They think they’re drowning. In a perfect world of course they wouldn’t need it, but the fact is that 75% of horses do bleed, and it hurts them when they bleed, so I’m not totally anti-Lasix.”
Towards the end of our conversation, he says, “I’m just a farm boy from Maryland doing the best he can.” Surely he’s joking. Surely not “just a farm boy from Maryland” – or England – is this successful jockey, trainer, miracle worker and inventor of the Tapeta footing? Surely the first thing people ask when they meet him is about the Famous Five, the 12-winners-in-a-day, or Da Hoss? Surely that’s what we’re thinking? “I prefer not to know. They’re very nice but I’m sure they realise I’ve messed up a few times, and I hope they’ll forgive me for it.” His biggest mistake? “I don’t know how to answer that. I’ll have to think about that one. I just don’t know which is my biggest mistake.” He laughs. “Anyhow, you can’t help that. We all make mistakes. The man who never made a mistake never made anything, and I’ve always been a pioneer, an adventurer.” Ah! We’re seeing through this farm boy façade now. “I’ve always tried to think outside the box, and sometimes when you do things differently you do it the wrong way. But I accept that.”
Judging by the type of horses by which he has earned his “Mad Genius” label, Dickinson could be depicted as tilting at windmills, but he is no Don Quixote. Da Hoss; A Huevo, who won the Grade 1 DeFrancis Memorial Dash at seven; former $13,000 claimer Cetewayo, sidelined by multiple injuries, a Grade 1 winner at the age of eight; and Business is Boomin, who triumphed in his first race since May 8, 1992 on May 8, 1997. Six of the latter-named gelding’s seven career wins came in that 8-year-old season. Dickinson is quick to downplay accolades. “Nobody in their right mind would have tried, would they?” At the end of the day, all he really wants is something simple: “I want to do something good, make the world a better place. I want to do all I can for racing. I want to change all the surfaces of the world. I want to repay the horse for all he’s done to me. I would like to play a part in the racing industry, a constructive part, and I hope I produce good surfaces will keep horses sounder and produce good racing.”
In the midst of a heat wave, the temperature relents and our interview comes to a close. An evening walk across Tapeta, Latin for “carpet,” is pleasant, the Dickinsonian energy that runs throughout the farm feeling like a coiled spring about to be set loose, as a storm transforms the electricity from figurative to literal. The sky is ablaze, not unlike the mind of the “Mad Genius.”