Monica Dickinson: Matriarch of a racing dynasty

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The Independent Online

Monica Dickinson would have made horse-racing history but for the antics – innocent or otherwise – of her top-class racehorse Browne's Gazette moments before the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in 1985. Browne's Gazette was an odds-on favourite and a victory would have secured for Dickinson the trainers' championship, but the events that unfolded are still the subject of second-guessing and intrigue today.

Dermot Browne, who was riding Browne's Gazette, was a champion amateur rider from Ireland who had joined Dickinson's stable in Yorkshire. Browne's Gazette, lining up in the middle of the 11 runners, lurched initially to the left, then veered violently further left, ending up yards off the running track, missing the start and ceding priceless ground.

It was far from Browne's finest hour. Had Browne's Gazette won – he quickly caught up only to fade at the finish – Dickinson would have become the first and only woman to be champion trainer, either flat or National Hunt, in the history of British horse racing.

She will long be remembered none the less. Her husband, Tony, was a champion National Hunt trainer, and their son Michael was a record-breaking champion National Hunt trainer. The three merged into an all-conquering racing dynasty associated with a stream of wonderful steeplechasers. Mrs D, as she was widely known, trained 149 winners in her own name, but played a pivotal part in the preparation of 941 others trained by Tony and Michael.

The list of top-flight performers created at Poplar House, Dunkeswick, near Harewood in West Yorkshire, ran to a prodigious length. It included the champion chasers Badsworth Boy, Bregawn, Gay Spartan, I'm a Driver, Rathgorman, Silver Buck and Wayward Lad.

At the height of the Dickinson dynasty's success, Michael saddled five runners in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup, steeplechasing's pinnacle, and watched as they filled the first five places. It was a stunning achievement that has yet to be repeated; likewise the tally of 12 winners on a single day trained by Michael on Boxing Day 1982.

Then, Michael was lured by the similarly dynastic horseracing icon Robert Sangster to train flat racers at the Manton estate in Wiltshire, and Monica assumed the trainer's licence at Harewood in 1984. In her first season she continued the power plays of the past. Browne's Gazette won the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, the Bula Hurdle and, leaving Desert Orchid trailing 15 lengths in his wake, the Christmas Hurdle.

The day after Browne's Gazette's mishap in the Champion Hurdle, Badsworth Boy became the first horse to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase three times, and the season was further marked by major wins for By the Way and Wayward Lad. The following season Wayward Lad made further inroads into the record books for the Dickinson family, winning the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park for the third time. It was the family's sixth King George win in the previous seven runnings.

Wayward Lad also played a part in the renowned Cheltenham Gold Cup of 1986, won by Dawn Run. Both he and Forgive'n'Forget headed the Irish-trained mare on the run to the final fence and then Wayward Lad jumped into a clear lead. His stamina waned, however, allowing Dawn Run to get home amid wild cheers and a wondrously evocative BBC television commentary from Peter O'Sullevan.

Born in 1924, Monica Birtwhistle was the daughter of a Lancashire cotton manufacturer who was also a hunting enthusiast. Ponies were omnipresent and Monica rode to hounds from a young age. Her proficiency as a rider was to extend quickly from the competition rings of Brailsford. Through a combination of iron will and emerging talent, she developed into one of the best showjumping riders in Britain. She also began to ride in point-to-points, meeting Tony Dickinson, son of a prominent horse dealer.

They married at Withnell in Lancashire in 1948. A few months after their son, Michael, was born in 1950 – to be followed by two daughters, Hazel and Anne – Monica Dickinson rode Paddy to victory in the British ladies' showjumping championships in Blackpool. Together, Tony and Monica built a prosperous business as horse dealers with a livery yard in Gisburn. When the transition to training at Harewood occurred in 1979, Tony Dickinson was the first to hold the Jockey Club licence. By the following year he was champion trainer.

While Tony and Michael would attend the races and visit Ireland in search of raw material, Monica would generally be busy at home, running the stables, overseeing the feeding, riding out and acting as office secretary. Those who worked in the yard recall hard days with strong discipline, and a fierce work ethic that yielded astounding results.

Monica's last winner was Crusader's Star, at Market Rasen in April 1989. Tony died in 1991 and thereafter Mrs D was a sounding board for many of the family's protégés and former staff members, as well as for Michael, who was by then training with much success in the United States.

Tony Smurthwaite

Dorothy Cynthia Monica Birtwhistle, racing trainer: born Clayton-le-Dale, Lancashire 19 September 1924; married 1950 Tony Dickinson (died 1991; one son, two daughters); died Knaresborough, North Yorkshire 15 July 2008.

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