When most racing fans think of trainer Michael Dickinson at the Breeders’ Cup, they think of his two-time winner Da Hoss; when they think of Da Hoss, they think of his 1998 Breeders’ Cup Mile victory at Churchill Downs, which came despite a near-total absence from racing since he’d won the same race two years earlier.
But that first Breeders’ Cup win for Dickinson, the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Mile, was just as meaningful for the trainer. It’s significant and notable because 1996 was the last time that the Breeders’ Cup was held at Toronto’s Woodbine Racecourse.
Dickinson would go on to create Tapeta Footings – an all-weather surface that combines silica sand, wax and other fibers – that serves as a substitute for dirt at racetracks and training tracks all over the world. There are only a few tracks in North America that utilize Tapeta (or the updated Tapeta 10) or any synthetic surface but, incidentally, Woodbine is one of them.
In an opinion piece last week in the Paulick Report, Ray Paulick took a closer look at the historic 1996 running of the Breeders’ Cup. He also floated the notion of the timing being right for a potential return to Woodbine for the World Championships – especially considering data that has shown that all-weather surfaces are safer than traditional dirt surfaces. Taking it a step further, we reached out to Dickinson to get his recollections of the 1996 Breeders’ Cup and his take on whether Woodbine would make sense as a destination for the Breeders’ Cup in the near future.
Note: Some of the questions and responses below have been edited for clarity and context.
America’s Best Racing: Take us back to 1996. What were your thoughts going into the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Woodbine? That was Da Hoss’ first (and only) time over that turf course.
Michael Dickinson: Woodbine has always been known as a world-class racecourse, especially for its E.P. Taylor Turf Course. Many of the best racecourses in the world are a mile and a half in circumference such as Ascot, Longchamp, The Curragh, Tokyo, Meydan and Flemington. A 12-furlong (mile and a half) circuit is safer and fairer.
It had rained almost every day for 10 days up to the Breeders Cup and we were really worried because Da Hoss loved firm going. Three days before the race we walked around, myself with a penetrometer (device used to measure firmness of the ground), Jon-Boy with a stick, and Joan Wakefield. At that time we thought there might be one dry path, but before we gave [Da Hoss’ jockey] Gary Stevens instructions we had to be absolutely certain where it was.
Twenty years previously I had been a steeplechase rider in England and I was dating a model and she came racing with me in a rather flashy dress and high heels and, bless her, she walked around with me the whole 12-furlong circuit. I said, ‘I’m coming up the left hand side,’ and she said, ‘No, my heels are going in much more on the left, come up the standside rail.’ She was right, we followed her instructions and we won the Panama Cigar Hurdle. So, by accident, we learned a good way to test the going. Joan did not enjoy walking around in the high heels but it was for a good cause.
ABR: Take us through the race a little bit. Da Hoss obviously sat a nice trip (on the firmer rail) and then kicked clear. What you were thinking as the race unfolded?
MD: We asked Gary to jump out of the gate, take him back and do a sharp left-hand turn to get to the rail. He achieved that brilliantly so in the early part of the race we were very happy. We couldn't believe our luck that no one else had walked the course and, therefore, did not want to be on the rail. It opened up and gave us a clear run. Turning for home he pulled out, and we knew when we hit the front he'd be hard to catch because he always had a fabulous kick.
ABR: You’ve had horses race (and win) all over the world. As we're focusing on Woodbine, can you share insights on what makes Woodbine unique when it comes to hosting a major festival or race day like a Breeders' Cup?
MD: Woodbine now has two excellent turf courses and a very good Tapeta 10 track. There are many really good jockeys in the colony and it is always easy to find a good one. There are some really good horsemen among the trainers and it is never easy to win a race there.
ABR: There are only a few North American tracks that utilize Tapeta or Tapeta 10. All these years later, many people suggest that one of the reasons Breeders' Cup could not return to Woodbine is because of the absence of a traditional dirt track. What's your reaction to that?
MD: Dirt racing has been around for 100 years and it's past its sell-by date. There is hardly any dirt track in America that hasn't had a huge rash of injuries from time to time… There are some new ideas to improve dirt tracks but it is an insult to some of the very good track superintendents over the last 20 years who were doing the best they could.
ABR: When you look at the Breeders' Cup heading back to Santa Anita Park this year, which has obviously had major issues this year with its surface, what are your thoughts?
MD: I believe there will be a move away from dirt in the next 10 years. Obviously there will be some trainers who will not be too keen on synthetics because they had a few disappointing tracks 10 years ago. Synthetics have improved dramatically since then and the statistics back that up. I think there will be more changes to come as the welfare of the horse becomes more prevalent. This won't be brought on by the horsemen, it will be forced upon them by the politicians and the animal rights activists.
Obviously, I have sympathy for the breeders who have millions of dollars invested in dirt stallions and dirt mares, but most of these will be successful on synthetic. There might be some movement in the stallion ladder but nothing dramatic. It was tough for Kodak when cameras were added to cell phones, but the world has changed.
As for the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita – I pray for a safe passage for all horses and jockeys.
ABR: Is there a case to be made for the Breeders' Cup returning to Woodbine? How would you make that case?
MD: It would be difficult for Woodbine to host the Breeders Cup again as they no longer have sufficient grandstands to handle the large crowd because they have been replaced by casinos.
ABR: Is there anything else you might want to add to the discussion and idea of Breeders' Cup potentially considering a venue like Woodbine at a time when horse safety is front and center in any discussion about racing in North America?
MD: In the two Tapeta tracks in the UK – Newcastle and Wolverhampton – there are 0 fatalities for 8000+ runners. Those figures are hard to deny or argue against.