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Daily Racing Form: Synthetic Tracks Back In Conversation, Along With Dickinson

Following a rash of horse fatalities, the idea of synthetic surfaces as an alternative to main-track dirt is making a comeback.

Tapeta Footings
Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto is one of three tracks in North America with Tapeta Footings, a synthetic surface that's an alternative to main-track dirt.

The category is admittedly narrow, and the numbers do not exactly overwhelm, but if anyone had to name the most widely known trainer with the highest win percentage entering the weekend, chances are they’d be stumped:

Michael Dickinson.

Yes, that Michael Dickinson, the man who fashioned the Da Hoss miracle at the 1998 Breeders’ Cup, trained super stallion Tapit, and swept the first five places in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup when, in his raw youth, he asked horses to jump. Dickinson’s boutique operation at his Tapeta Farm training facility near the village of North East, Md., has sent out 13 starters this year. Six of them won, five others hit the board, and only one failed to bring home a check.

Dickinson did not run a horse until March 22, the second day of spring. Such a schedule aligns with his traditional British upbringing, which teaches that the late fall and winter months belong to the National Hunt circuit. From any angle, though, 6 for 13 for a small stable is not a bad run. On Saturday, he’ll have a shot to win another with the 5-year-old mare Bayberry, owned by John Teas, in the $100,000 Power By Far Stakes at Parx Racing.

On a mild midweek afternoon, Dickinson was busy turning out Bayberry and the rest of his string onto the generous farm pastures. He’s got about a dozen in racing trim right now, with more in the pipeline for owners like George Strawbridge and Charles Fipke.

“Three very promising fillies for George, in fact,” Dickinson said. “We get them all out every day, for as much as four hours. It’s good for their minds, their lungs, their digestion.”

Dickinson stepped away from training in 2007 to devote more time spreading the gospel of Tapeta Footings, the engineered surface that can be found at three North American racetracks – Golden Gate Fields, Presque Isle Downs, and Woodbine – with nearly 400 racing days among them in 2019. He returned to training in 2016, intent on applying new twists to old methods.

Still, if he never saddled another winner, Dickinson will have made a contribution to the sport that someday could save the game’s bacon. Prompted by the rash of fatalities at Santa Anita Park earlier this year, the idea of synthetic surfaces as an alternative to main-track dirt is making a comeback from their roller-coaster ride of a decade ago. Asked in a Thoroughbred Daily News interview if an engineered surface is among the options for future NYRA surfaces, CEO David O’Rourke replied: “Synthetics – the science behind it is a lot different than it was 10 years ago. It’s a product that’s improving. I’m very interested in discussing it.”

Dickinson began exploring surface technology in the mid-1990s. By the time this reporter paid him a visit in the spring of 1999, the trainer had laid a Tapeta galloping course around part of the farm’s perimeter.

“Safety is the most important thing,” was Dickinson’s message then, and now.

“If you protect the horse you are protecting the jockey,” Dickinson said. “Theirs is such a dangerous profession, so you must do all you can.”

Like so many industries with a large stake in the status quo, horse racing in the early years of this century had to be faced with doomsday scenarios before changes were considered. Spikes in equine fatality rates at major tracks were becoming alarming, even to the most hardened of racing veterans. Engineered surfaces were seen as a solution, and they might have been if the major players in the nascent revolution had embraced two basic concepts:

Consistency within a racing circuit, and uniformity of engineered surface.

Instead, there was Keeneland Association going into business with the British company that made Polytrack, while Churchill Downs, just down the road, refused to lose the dirt over which the Kentucky Derby was run.

By contrast, the California Horse Racing Board ordered that all the state’s major racing meets had to have an engineered surface to be granted dates. Then, the board turned the tracks loose with the unregulated mandate, triggering a gold rush of companies with competing products. At one point, in 2008, the five major California tracks had five different surfaces, including a lingering dirt course at Bay Meadows, which received special dispensation because it was about to close.

The crazy quilt allowed for no real collaboration in maintenance challenges, no meaningful shared data based on weather patterns, and no chance for horses to become accustomed to one surface before they were shipped to another. A decade later, Hollywood is gone, Bay Meadows is gone, and the last engineered surface still standing out West is the Tapeta main track installed by Dickinson at Golden Gate Fields.

Dickinson, ever restless, continues to fine-tune his surface. In addition to the three North American tracks, Tapeta can be found in such disparate locales as the island of Tasmania, the Godolphin training center in Dubai, and Newcastle Racecourse in Northern England, where Enable ran last fall before her victories in the Arc de Triomphe and Breeders’ Cup Turf. There is also plenty of Tapeta at Tapeta Farm.

Politics and economics conspired to end the first wave of synthetic surfaces, and now, with horse racing in the public’s crosshairs because of equine fatalities, politics and economics might bring them back. PETA is on the prowl. Tapeta may be part of the answer.

This story originally appeared on DRF.com.

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