For Dickinson, it was as if he'd never left


So, why was I courtside at NRG Stadium in Houston on Saturday watching the ninth race at Laurel Park on my laptop while the rest of the crowd, which would swell to 75,000, was watching the Villanova and Oklahoma warmups? Well, I knew that the trainer of Tide Is High specialized in winning races with horses off long layoffs – two years, five years, forever. What I didn’t know is if the trainer himself could win after an 8 1/2-year layoff.

The bettors had no doubts. They had not forgotten about Michael Dickinson. Tide Is High, trained by Dickinson, was 3-5. And the 4-year-old filly ran right to her odds, going quickly to the front in the first-level allowance race around two turns on grass, looking like a cinch every step, and winning by two comfortable lengths.

Even from another time zone and through the small laptop screen, Dickinson and his wife, Joan Wakefield, looked quite at home in the winner’s circle – once they got there.

“I forgot the way [to the winner’s circle],” Dickinson said on Tuesday.

Dickinson said that the last time he was at Laurel was when A Huevo won the Grade 1 De Francis Dash and Tapit won the Laurel Futurity. That was 2003, a classic Dickinson exacta with a West Virginia-bred reclamation project owned by his great friend Mark Hopkins and a 2-year-old who would become the country’s hottest stallion.

I went to Tapeta Farm in North East, Md., on March 1 for the press day when Dickinson announced his return and unveiled all the state-of-the-art improvements at his showplace overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. I was not entirely unbiased, as this was the man who once told me that Da Hoss could not lose the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Mile, and I bet enough to clean out the press box till of its hundred dollar bills.

“I want to fill the farm with good horses,” Dickinson said on press day.

Saturday was just the start of the comeback.

“We have 12 horses at the moment; most of them are relatively new arrivals,” Dickinson said Tuesday. “We hope to have a few runners coming up in the next few weeks.”

Among the congratulatory messages he got after Tide Is High won was from Jerry Bailey.

“Well done, nothing’s changed,” Dickinson said Bailey wrote.

“I replied to him, ‘You’re next,’ ” Dickinson said.

And what was the reply?

“I haven’t had one,” Dickinson said.

I went to the farm to see the changes and was appropriately dazzled by his synthetic surface Tapeta 10 (no more rubber) and the new performance center with its vibrating platform, hyperbaric chamber, salt therapy room, horse spa, and heart-rate monitor.

The three turf tracks somehow looked even better than I had remembered. Even though there had been no horses at Tapeta for years, nothing had been ignored in the interim, just in case the man who had given us 587 North American winners through the years – including Da Hoss, Cetawayo, Tapit, A Huevo, and several other Grade 1 winners – decided to make a comeback someday or decided to sell the 200-acre farm.

What I didn’t tell Dickinson on press day was that I came mostly because I had a craving for a Woody’s crab cake. So, after the rest of the press corps there that day partook of the meal in the performance center, I headed for Woody’s on the way back to I-95, civilization, and the rest of the basketball season, which would culminate Monday night with that rarest of moments, a Philadelphia team winning a championship.

Villanova was Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, and Barbaro over the three weeks of the NCAA Tournament. It was fascinating to cover, but why exactly did I need to watch Tide Is High?

Greatness is greatness, and despite his protestations, humility, and self-deprecation, Dickinson is quite simply one of the greatest horse trainers who ever lived. He doesn’t think outside the box. With him, there is no box.

I was there with Dickinson on the Churchill Downs grass course the Friday night before the 1998 BC Mile. It was pitch black as we walked the course several times. The message was so clear: This was a man looking for every legal edge. He was leaving nothing to chance.

On Saturday, Dickinson received a tweet after the sixth race from Laurel track announcer Dave Rodman.

“Dave Rodman tweeted that he hadn’t seen me on the turf track,” Dickinson said.

Dickinson replied as he was walking the turf track: “To the non-believer, who goes by the name of name of Dave Rodman, oh ye of little faith.”

Dickinson was asked whether he had had inquiries from potential new clients.

“We’ve had a few inquiries yesterday and today,” Dickinson said, “but until the horse shows up, you never know what’s going to happen.”

What you do know is that if the horse does show up at Tapeta Farm, that horse will get care unique to Dickinson and his staff.

The goal is simple, Dickinson said: “To win any big race anywhere in the world.”