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Michael Dickinson: They call him the mad genius

Steve Dennis talks to the trainer about his amazing achievements

Michael Dickinson: won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1983 with Bregawn
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First published on January 10, 2012

The headline said it all. The front-page photograph showed a smiling young man in a quilted jacket standing in front of five racehorses. The man was Michael Dickinson, the horses were the Famous Five who had dominated the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup to a degree not seen before and unlikely to be seen again.

Thus there were plenty of options for the headline writer as he mulled over how best to illustrate the uncommon abilities of the young man in the quilted jacket. In the end, two words were enough to tell the tale. The headline read 'The Genius'.

Dickinson carved his name indelibly into the sport on that spring afternoon in 1983 and, after a brief fall from grace, underlined it on a cold winter evening at Churchill Downs in 1998. Legends wax and wane but Dickinson's will shine forever.

It is the Famous Five that people never tire of talking about – Bregawn, Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House. Keeping five horses – nine per cent of his Harewood yard – safe and sound enough to run in a Gold Cup is hard enough, but getting them home in the first five places is almost inconceivable.

Almost is the right word, because Dickinson had seen it coming. The previous season he'd sent out Silver Buck and Bregawn to finish first and second and, just a week after that, he began planning a more audacious outcome 12 months hence.

"I predicted we would have the first five in the Gold Cup 12 months before the race, but only in the privacy of my car to my wife Joan," he says.

"She probably heard the commentary for the 1983 Gold Cup 50 times before the race was even run. The phrases included 'Bregawn forces the pace on the last circuit', 'Wayward Lad is making steady and relentless progress at the top of the hill', 'a mistake by Captain John at the second-last' and 'approaching the last fence there is only one thing certain, the Cup is going to Harewood'.

"At the time Joan was a teacher, and she smuggled a radio into class and listened to the race with an earphone. You can imagine what she was feeling when Peter Bromley repeated all those phrases that she had heard so many times before, especially when he said 'the Cup is going to Harewood' approaching the final fence."

Bregawn led home the Famous Five by five lengths and never can have so much excitement devolved upon the fifth horse home in a championship race, Ashley House's progress through the final furlong observed with a growing sense of unreality.

The pressure and tension of the build-up had pared a stone from Dickinson's spare frame since the previous Christmas. He found sleep hard to come by and was burned out from exhaustion by raceday. All great artists suffer for their art. Years later the readers of the Racing Post voted it the greatest training performance ever seen in Britain.

The Famous Five: Michael Dickinson with his 1983 Gold Cup team (from left): Bregawn, Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House

Dickinson held a training licence for just four seasons, taking over from his father Tony (the Boss) in 1980 at the age of 30 and handing it on to his mother Monica (Mrs D) in 1984, but he was champion for three of those seasons. On December 27 in 1982 he burnished his gilded reputation by sending out 12 winners across the bank holiday programme, a feat that – as with everything Dickinson achieved – happened not by chance but through patient preparation.

"On November 1 we were having dinner at home with the Boss, Mrs D and Sandy Dudgeon, our stable amateur," recalls Dickinson.

"After a couple of glasses of wine I announced that we were going to break the world record for number of winners in a day. My father turned to Sandy and exclaimed: 'You never know what my son is going to come out with next, the silly boy is as daft as a brush!' "We selected 28 horses suitable for the task and eventually ran 20.

Twelve won and all but one ended up in the first three, including the winner and third in the King George."

It can't be overemphasised that – unlike the leading yards today – Harewood housed a maximum of 55 horses, making it the epitome of quality over quantity. "I was lucky enough to have a brilliant team behind me, led by Brian Powell," says Dickinson, who remembers building all the schooling fences and hurdles himself. His horses were renowned for their footsure jumping, a talent honed by the meticulous nature of their preparation.

Before taking the licence he had ably combined the roles of stable jockey and assistant trainer, becoming champion amateur and riding five winners at the Cheltenham Festival during a career of mind over matter that exemplified the Dickinson approach.

"When I was 17, I weighed 11st 10lb and stood 6ft 2in," he says, staring into the distance as though he can see his younger self standing there. "I was too tall and heavy to be a jockey, so the fact that my regular riding weight was 10st 7lb – I did 10st 4lb once or twice – was down to dieting, hard work, saunas and late-night runs in a plastic sweatsuit."

What makes him great Natural ability allied to a tireless work ethic meant a relentless pursuit of perfection that frequently reached its quarry
The best of times The Famous Five of 1983, three jump trainers' titles, two Breeders' Cup Miles
The worst of times That season at Manton in 1986
What you don't know about him He trained only two more winners (380) than he rode over jumps

Dickinson was always destined to take over at the helm of the family empire, an intention fuelled by two summers spent with Vincent O'Brien at Ballydoyle in the mid-1970s, a period Dickinson describes as "one of the happiest times of my life". What he learned there from the master he combined with the work ethic set by the formidable Mrs D to brilliant effect.

"It was my mother who was the driving force, who widened family horizons," says Dickinson. "For her, working relentlessly hard was as natural as breathing. When days started at 5am and finished at 9pm, she never once complained.

"She seldom referred to me as Michael. 'Silly Boy' was her usual form of address, uttered in the same tone of voice as Captain Mainwaring used when speaking to Private Pike in Dad's Army. Pike was a 'stupid boy' and I was a 'silly boy'."

This silly boy conquered his field deftly and swiftly. He won two Gold Cups, three King Georges, three Champion Chases and a Hennessy, as well as sundry other high-rank affairs, and it seemed for all the world as though he could go on that way forever. He wouldn't – in 1984 came the amazing news that Dickinson was to relinquish his jumps licence in order to train Flat horses for Robert Sangster at Manton.

It was an incredible act of reinvention by the Yorkshireman but one with unfortunate consequences. His only season at Manton was a complete failure, the meagre tally of six winners during the whole of 1986 adding statistical insult to the injury done to pride and to reputation.

"My main reason for turning to the Flat was so I could pay my staff a decent wage," he says. "It was a mistake on the part of Robert Sangster to offer to set me up as his private trainer and it was a mistake for me to accept. I had very little experience of Flat racing, nowhere near enough for a job involving so much pressure."

Michael Dickinson (right) watches on as Lester Piggott presents Sir Anthony McCoy with a trophy at Cheltenham in March 2009

The most pressing problem was the enormous amount of work required to bring the facilities at Manton – which had lain fallow for many years – up to date, and Dickinson struggled to make the training complex fit for purpose.

"I had to rebuild the stables and re-lay all the gallops, because the chalk downs had moved beneath the turf – the effect was rather like ridge and furrow. In addition, scarcely believably, an Esso pipeline ran right through the middle of the gallops.

"Lester Piggott and I started as Flat trainers in the same year and the bookies were betting on who would send out more winners. Peter O'Sullevan visited Manton in March and when he left he had resolved to put a big bet on Lester, having calculated that I had little chance of swiftly overcoming the problems presented by a batch of extremely immature horses, many of them by unproven stallions, and by the condition of the grass gallops."

Icarus fell to earth. Dickinson was fired in December and left Britain for the US, setting up camp with a few horses at Fair Hill in Maryland before buying the site that would become Tapeta Farm. The narrative beloved of storytellers the world over – rise, fall, then redemptive ascent – was about to enter its third act.

"I kept telling anyone who would listen that I was going to build the best training centre in the US," he says. "They thought I was mad, but when they visited Tapeta Farm they thought I was a genius. That is where the nickname 'mad genius' originated, but they are only half right . . ."

That word trails in his wake wherever he goes. Fifteen years after the Famous Five had first earned him that label, one horse reclaimed and reinforced it for him. Da Hoss.

The gelding had won the Breeders' Cup Mile for Dickinson in 1996 but succumbed to long-standing problems with his legs and feet shortly afterwards and spent the next 23 months on the sidelines. The story of the rehabilitation of Da Hoss sums up Dickinson's doctrine to perfection: painstaking preparation woven through with a natural empathy for the horse and for the business of training, leavened with a light dusting of that rarest of elements – genius.

What he said
'Come on my lot!' During the 1983 Gold Cup
'Training has always been a challenge, but it has been wildly exciting and I would not have traded it for anything in the world' On his retirement

What they said about him
'The victory by Da Hoss was one of the most remarkable training jobs of the modern era' Mark Simon, Thoroughbred Times
'He had what we thought at the time were wacky ideas, but they turned out to be good ones. He did it his way' Jenny Pitman
'The adjective 'orthodox' has rarely been applied to Dickinson' Andrew Beyer, Washington Post

"I knew I had the best horse in the race – that always helps," he says with a smile. "I was able to get him fit because my facilities were just terrific. The third factor was interval training, because if I'd given him long workouts or strong gallops his legs wouldn't have stood up to it. His exercise rider Jon 'Boy' Ferriday kept all his workouts within 0.2 sec of the prescribed times because it was crucial not to go too slow or too fast.

"Six weeks out, two really good vets told me he wouldn't make the race. I was very down, but my barn foreman Miguel Piedra, a brilliant horseman, came to me and said 'don't worry Michael, we'll get him there'. Joan played a big part in his preparation but the horse wouldn't have made it without Miguel, the man with the magic hands."

Da Hoss won his prep race but was not selected for the Mile by the Breeders' Cup committee. Only a late scratching got him into the field at Churchill Downs. And then Da Hoss won the Mile by a head. As he hit the wire, commentator Tom Durkin called out: "Oh my! This is the greatest comeback since Lazarus."

"Oh, Da Hoss was harder to manage than the Famous Five," Dickinson says calmly. "It was two years in the making, after all, and I think I did a better job of it than with the Cheltenham horses."

Michael Dickinson moments after Da Hoss is declared the winner of the Breeders' Cup Mile at Churchill Downs in November 1998

Dickinson handed in his licence in 2007 in order to concentrate on his hugely successful Tapeta synthetictrack business that is beginning to carpet the world's racecourses, including Meydan. He doesn't lament the passing of his training days.

"There are two principal reasons for feeling glad I'm not a jump trainer in this era – the policy of having vast numbers of horses trained at major stables and the extent to which prices have gone through the roof.

"Nowadays, to be champion trainer you need something like 200 horses. The 55 we had at Harewood was, I believe, just about the maximum number I was capable of training properly, with the certainty that each animal was receiving the degree of individual attention required to ensure the best chance of success.

"My father did not approve of paying big prices for horses, but we managed to win three races at the Cheltenham Festival every year. Now it's commonplace for jumpers to be bought for more than £200,000 and such prices obviously impose immense pressure on the leading trainers. The way the best of them cope with that pressure is deeply impressive and I'm full of admiration for the talent and dedication they bring to the job.

"I don't miss training, but I love horses. The horse is a magnificent animal that will do anything you ask him to do if it is physically possible. I have always felt indebted to the horses for all the super rides they gave this less-than-perfect jockey.

"Luckily I get to see horses every day in the course of my work with Tapeta – I couldn't survive a horse-free life."

He may not miss it but we miss him, because he didn't so much change the face of the sport as lend it an awestruck, wide-eyed look of adulation. Training is very hard work but Michael Dickinson magically made it look easy; that's what geniuses do.

Full name Michael William Dickinson
Born Gisburn, Yorkshire, February 3, 1950
Parents Tony and Monica Dickinson
Riding career First winner: South Rock, Chepstow, March 6, 1968 Cheltenham; Festival winners: Fascinating Forties (1968 NH Chase), Rainbow Valley (1970 Kim Muir), The Chisler (1973 NH Handicap Chase), Broncho (1976 Mildmay of Flete), Gay Spartan (1977 Sun Alliance Chase) Champion amateur 1969-70; Highest position in jockeys' table 5th in 1976-77; most wins in a season 53 in 1975-76 and 1976-77; total wins over jumps 378 (1968-78)
Stables as trainer Poplar House, Dunkeswick, Harewood, Yorkshire 1980-84; Manton House, Manton, Marlborough, Wiltshire 1986; Fair Hill, Maryland 1987-98; Tapeta Farm, Maryland 1998-2007
First winner as trainer Murray's Gift, Ludlow, October 2, 1980
First Flat winner Visconti, Nottingham, October 28, 1980
First five in Cheltenham Gold Cup Bregawn, Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck, Ashley House (1983)
First two in Cheltenham Gold Cup Silver Buck, Bregawn (1982) Queen Mother Champion Chase winners Rathgorman (1982), Badsworth Boy (1983, 1984)
Other Cheltenham Festival winners Political Pop (1981 Mildmay of Flete, 1982 Kim Muir), Sabin Du Loir (1983 Sun Alliance Hurdle), Browne's Gazette (1984 Supreme Novices' Hurdle), The Mighty Mac (1984 Cathcart Chase)
King George winners Silver Buck (1980), Wayward Lad (1982, 1983)
Hennessy Gold Cup winner Bregawn (1982)
Other selected big-race jumps winners Bregawn (1981 Mildmay Novices' Chase, 1982 Peter Marsh Chase), Wayward Lad (1981 Welsh Champion Chase, Tote Silver Trophy, 1982 Lambert & Butler Premier Chase Final, Timeform Chase, Welsh Champion Chase, 1983 Charlie Hall Memorial Chase), Righthand Man (1982 Charlie Hall Memorial Chase), Captain John (1982 SGB Chase), Ashley House (1983 Peter Marsh)
Champion jumps trainer 3 times (1981-82, 1982-83, 1983-84)
Most wins in one day 12 (world record) December 27, 1982
Most wins in a British season 120 in 1982-83
First winner in US Bold Magestrate, Philadelphia Park, June 30, 1987
Breeders' Cup winner Da Hoss (Mile 1996 and 1998)
Compiled by John Randall

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Lester Piggott and I started as Flat trainers in the same year and the bookies were betting on who would send out more winners
E.W. Terms