by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

By Ray Paulick

Michael Dickinson's interest in racing surfaces first took root in the mid-1970s when he spent two summers at Ballydoyle in Ireland, working with his mentor, the late Vincent O'Brien, the legendary Irish trainer. “He started the all-weather gallops,” Dickinson said of O'Brien. “Before that, everyone (in Europe) trained on grass or sand. He invented the modern all-weather gallops and ignited my passion for surfaces.”

Dickinson came to the United States in 1987 and opened a public stable, but his interest in track surfaces was only heightened. He began researching new surfaces in 1992, and four years later installed the first Tapeta track at his farm and training center located on the north end of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. “We had eight Grade 1 winners come off that farm in the first eight years,” Dickinson reminded me.

As an increasing number of racetracks and training centers began exploring the possibility of installing synthetic surfaces, Dickinson formed Tapeta Footings and eventually gave up training in 2007 to focus on this new business. Golden Gate Fields in Northern California and Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania installed a Tapeta main track, but the crown jewel for Tapeta was the recently completed Meydan in the United Arab Emirates. Meydan opened earlier this year and last weekend hosted the world's richest race, the $10-million Dubai World Cup, won by Gloria de Campeao.

Upon his return from the World Cup, Dickinson spoke with the Paulick Report about Tapeta's performance in Dubai and on the subject of synthetic surfaces in general.

Are you satisfied with the performance of Tapeta Footings during the inaugural Meydan race meeting, and in particular for the Dubai World Cup program?

Yes, but I don't get a vote.  The international jockey colony at Meydan including Ramon Dominguez, Kent Desormeaux, Frankie Dettori, and Garrett Gomez loved the surface.  I was at the track almost every morning and no trainers complained and in fact several have asked about installing a Tapeta track in their own country.  With world-class horsemen, they expect and deserve the best surface.

It's my understanding there was one horse, Timely Jazz, who was pulled up during the UAE Derby. What type of injury did he suffer, and did his jockey or trainer point to the racetrack as a factor?

Timely Jazz suffered a fracture of his near foreleg.  I spoke to the trainer after the race and he did not blame the track in any way.  In fact, he has asked me to look into the viability of installing a Tapeta track in his homeland of Scandinavia.

Was the heat on Dubai World Cup night worse than during the rest of the meeting, and did that affect the surface's performance or maintenance requirements?

Dubai is a great climate for horses in winter, though I believe this was the hottest World Cup on record, and the Tapeta surface performed well.  By 3 p.m., the ambient temperature had reached 106 degrees and was still 87 degrees by 9 p.m. By comparison, the normal high for that time of year is 88 degrees. However, the heat did not affect the racetrack. The jockeys and the times of the races confirm that the track performed exactly as it had done throughout February and March.  I promised the trainers and jockeys they would have the same track every morning and the very same track every night.  We did have to adjust our maintenance slightly on World Cup night to allow for the heat but this was no big deal.

Are the ingredients of the surface at Meydan essentially the same as the Tapeta Footings tracks at Golden Gate Fields and Presque Isle Downs?

Not exactly. Tapeta Footings has continued to improve our ingredients and refine our production process.  I head our R & D division at Tapeta and we have three professors as consultants.  We feel that the Tapeta tracks have improved every year and we know that the tracks for 2010-'11 will be even better.  Joan Wakefield and her crew do all the mixing and they felt when they mixed the track for Meydan, it was the best we have done so far.

How do you respond to critics, such as Daily Racing Form publisher Steven Crist, who said the Dubai World Cup was a “$10-million advertisement for how synthetic surfaces can make a complete mess of so-called world-class championship racing”?

The Dubai World Cup was no surprise to me.  The results on World Cup night showed most races were quite formful.  During the Carnival 37% of the favorites won, but, bear in mind, most of the races had 14 runners.  A couple of the well-fancied horses in the World Cup had issues before the race that were unrelated to the track surface. 

Handicappers from other parts of the world have made adjustments, and with much success.  I have been corresponding with several big-time gamblers in the UK who have been very successful betting and making money during the Carnival and on World Cup night. 

Some of the American handicappers have been reluctant to change. If they are losing, maybe they should look at their own method of handicapping rather than blaming the surface.

In the UAE Derby, the favorites ran 1-2-3, while in the Golden Shaheen, the second and third choices ran 1-2.  As for the World Cup, the highly touted Gio Ponti had run Beyer Figures of 99, 110 in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and 99 in his previous three starts.  There are some people who feel that since the Quality Road episode at the start of the Breeders' Cup, Gio Ponti has been very nervous in the gate.   He was well trained by my good friend, Christophe Clement, but, given the travel involved, a horse with such a figure pattern might not approach his “top” is hardly surprising.

In the prep race three weeks earlier at Meydan, a length separated three horses. The same three horses ran 1-2-3 in the World Cup and were a head and nose apart.  Gitano Hernando and Richard's Kid ran almost identical to the Goodwood at Santa Anita last October. Given that there were 14 starters in each of the races and horses do not run in lanes, these horses ran to the near accuracy of a Swiss clock.

The UAE Derby was very formful.

The Golden Shaheen was formful.

The Godolphin Mile was quite formful.

You are obviously a proponent of these surfaces, particularly Tapeta. Why should the rest of the racing industry embrace them as you have?

The number one concern for people involved in the sport should be the safety of the precious horses and brave jockeys.  An important aspect is the welfare of the horse and I passionately believe that a good Tapeta surface enhances horse welfare. In three years of morning training at Presque Isle Downs, we have not had the ambulance out once.  The fatality rate of 0.7 per 1,000 is over 300% better than dirt. 

Haven't synthetic or engineered surfaces such as Tapeta changed how races are run and made them less formful?

After safety, the goal at Meydan was to produce a level playing field.  If someone had a front runner and someone had a deep closer, we would like to think they had an equal chance.  We have had all the races analyzed by several experienced handicappers who have all confirmed that there has been no bias.  There has been no rail bias: horses have been winning from all draws.

Surely the most hardened bettors can't object to a level playing field. We want the best horse to win. What's wrong with handicapping the horses and not handicapping the track?

Walter Glynn, the senior Raceform chart maker, has noted that the Tapeta at Meydan had no bias, was very fair and was as good if not fairer than any turf track. 

For the entire Carnival:

-21 winners were forwardly placed

-12 came from mid pack

-19 were closers.

There seems to be strong momentum in California, at least among trainers, to replace Santa Anita's hybrid Pro-Ride/Cushion Track with conventional dirt.  Are we looking at the end of synthetic tracks in the United States?

I hope not.  I accept that some of the synthetics in the U.S.A. are less than perfect but the synthetics in a year or two will be much improved and vastly better than dirt.

Why was there a move to synthetics in the first place? People have short memories.  Was it because two horses were dying every day on American racetracks?  Or was it that the modern American dirt horse cannot perform without a shed load of drugs?  Thirty years ago, there was little medication.  Twenty-five years ago marked the introduction of permitted medication, but 10 years later the horses were requiring more medication, and today they need even more drugs to keep them racing.  Surely, you have seen other sports tainted by drugs which have lost their public appeal. The rest of the world can conduct racing with zero medication and they cannot understand why Americans use so many drugs.

I don't expect any new synthetic tracks in the U.S.A. this year, but once people have seen the new generation of synthetic tracks, I would hope they would reconsider. Not everybody in the United States loves synthetics, but the rest of the world does.

Why do you think the issue has become so polarizing in the U.S., especially among many horseplayers, who are almost militant in their opposition to these tracks?

If all the tracks were as fair, reliable and as unbiased as Meydan the handicappers would not have a problem. 

Will Tapeta remain the main track surface at Meydan, and will we see additional international venues include synthetic tracks as one of the surfaces offered for racing?

I cannot answer this question; you will have to ask Sheikh Mohammed, Saeed al Tayer and Frank Gabriel.

During the last several weeks there were many racetrack executives from all around the world visiting Meydan.  They spent time watching the racing and talking to jockeys and trainers.  As a result, we have had several inquiries to install a Tapeta surface in their country.

The U.S.A. is the only major racing nation that races on dirt, and their horses are brilliant.  In the 2008 Golden Shaheen, raced on dirt, Americans ran first through fifth, and have dominated in the Dubai World Cup on dirt.  In the past, Americans shipped with confidence because they only had themselves to beat, but now it is not so easy.

In the Gulf News of Dubai, sports editor Daniel Hicks wrote, “Dubai is not here to replicate perfect conditions for America to scoop all the prizes. It is about bringing the best from all over the world to compete–on a surface fair to all.”

The eight races on World Cup night were won by seven different nations.

In the UAE there are two dirt tracks, Jebel Ali and Sharjah, and the dirt horses from these two tracks that ran on Tapeta during the Carnival reproduced their best figures.

I would love to see some American dirt horses come over next year.  If your horses are good enough, they have nothing to fear.

Copyright © 2010, The Paulick Report

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