DUBAI // Michael Dickinson's journey from jockey and trainer to inventor of a new race track surface began 30 years ago when he worked for Vincent O'Brien - the first trainer to create a synthetic gallop for his horses. And it is a journey that has put Dickinson firmly in the spotlight for this year as the Tapeta track he invented for the new Meydan Racecourse comes under the microscope of all those involved in the sport.
Tapeta, Latin for carpet, represents a major shift for horse racing in the country as all major races were previously run on the dirt and turf at Nad al Sheba. Yet Dickinson says it is a safer alternative and rejects claims that dirt horses may not handle the surface as well as turf runners. O'Brien, who died last June aged 92, was at the forefront of a movement that viewed the manipulation of surfaces as a way to prevent injury to horses.
Dickinson spent two years riding out for the six-time Epsom Derby-winning trainer and was inspired by his quest for the safest track. "Vincent O'Brien started it all off, there was no better teacher and he ignited my passion for surfaces," he says. That passion survived as Dickinson became an amateur champion rider then Classic-winning professional. He was a three-time champion National Hunt trainer, famously training the first five past the post in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup. Graduating to the flat, Dickinson trained Da Hoss to victory in the 1996 and 1998 Breeders' Cup Mile.
Finally his preoccupation with surfaces led him to pursue his own quest. "I'd seen dirt racing in the US and I could see its inadequacies," he says. "That was highlighted more so after the Breeders' Cup at Monmouth Park [George Washington fractured an ankle and was put down in 2007] - that was horrific. "I thought there must be a better way. I thought it would take three months but it took four years, I had 52 formulas and dozens of samples in cat-litter boxes."
Dickinson has now installed the surface at Golden Gate Fields in San Francisco, and Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania. Godolphin has a Tapeta training track at Al Quoz and the Meydan training track was laid last year prior to the racecourse's new competition track. There are Tapeta training tracks all over the world. Some dirt fans are wary of change, saying synthetics favour turf horses. "That's erroneous, it's one of those things you say enough times and people believe it," counters Dickinson.
"Dirt horses do just as well on synthetic. There are three surfaces: dirt, turf and synthetic and they are different. Not every turf and dirt horse is going to handle synthetic. When I was training all our dirt horses handled Tapeta. But all horses are not the same." Dickinson says that not all turf horses handle all types of turf. "Dirt is a failed surface, they have had 100 years to get it right and it can never be the answer," he says.
"The fatality of horses racing is no longer acceptable. "Regretfully accidents will happen. But rain turns dirt to a sea of mud, known as 'slop' and when it's not raining it requires huge amounts of water. The kick-back is brutal and a lot of horses won't face up to it." The UAE trainers conditioning their horses on Tapeta for the first time this season reported that they needed time to adjust. But Dickinson says: "We are all scared of the unknown and as time goes by they will build up confidence.
"Turf is an excellent global surface but synthetics play a part as a training track and allow people to rest their turf and to be used when the turf is either very hard or very soft after rain. Meydan is the best track we have done and this first season is vital. "I have been excited but nervous too. The last few weeks represented the biggest test Tapeta has faced and at this stage we are happy. I have a lot of confidence in the surface."