Racing: Hoss helps restore Dickinson pride

Breeders' Cup XV: A record-breaking trainer who left Britain under a cloud shows that his prowess has not dimmed
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The Independent Online
THE RECORD books will suggest Britain were wiped out at Breeders' Cup XV at Churchill Downs on Saturday, that their sole source of credit was Swain, who finished third in the Classic.

That view ignores the fact that the standard-bearer was actually born in Ireland, is owned and trained by Dubaians and was beaten across the course in the series finale by an Italian.

It also ignores the reality that Europe did rather well in Louisville if you consider the stock that has been sent west in human form. Michael Dickinson was our most famous son to succeed, in the Mile, when his Da Hoss beat Hawksley Hill, who is prepared by Surrey-born Neil Drysdale. Buck's Boy, the Turf victor, is trained by a man of Co Cork, Noel Hickey, while Classic-winning Awesome Again is conditioned by Pat Byrne, who hails not from the Bluegrass, but rather the blue-collar of Romford. It was difficult to understand why the Americans were partying so hard on Saturday night.

Dickinson's was the principal moment. It is 11 years since the Yorkshireman was virtually thrown, by the seat of his pants, into the street following a calamitously brief period at Robert Sangster's Manton stables. It was a sojourn that soiled his career and sent him to America with the disassembled building blocks of his reputation.

Dickinson is still hurt by the memory and Saturday's victory was all the sweeter for that. He wants the people back home to understand again that he is not a failure. "That aspect means a lot to me," he said yesterday. "We've all got our pride haven't we?"

Dickinson also possesses some of the most improbable achievements in racing. A holy trinity is composed of a single day in 1982 when he sent out 21 National Hunt runners and welcomed back 12 winners; the following year when he saddled the first five in the Cheltenham Gold Cup; and Saturday's resurrection of the porcelain limbs of Da Hoss. But the greatest of all these, according to the man himself, is the most recent.

"Da Hoss is the best thing I've ever done, the one that I'm most proud of," he said. "Gosh it's been hard work training him this year because we've had to give him enough work to get fit but not too much or he'd have fallen apart. We had so many down days, so it's nice to get the occasional up day. We've had tears over this horse." Including some streaming down Dickinson's face on Saturday.

The 48-year-old trainer is considered quite a curiosity in the States, a product of his Englishness and eccentricity. "There is no-one quite as crazy as I am," he told a knot of reporters at yesterday's winners' breakfast.

The image has always been that Dickinson has some rare affinity with horses, a natural aptitude handed down by his parents and then polished with gemstone precision. It is a little disappointing therefore to hear him describe training as less of an art form and more a chain of menial tasks.

"If a businessman comes up with a single brilliant idea in a year he can probably live off that, but looking after horses is just about the opposite of that. You don't have to be brilliant to be a trainer, the skill is in not making mistakes.

"There is no rocket science about training. It takes two years to make a horse and two minutes to ruin it. You can never let your guard down. The most important thing in any race is to have the best horse. What we trainers do after that is miniscule."

The strategy for Da Hoss is already laid down. His next race will be the Mile, once again, at Gulfstream Park in Florida in 12 months' time. Whenever a Breeders' Cup has been staged in the Sunshine state there has been no light for the Europeans. Their aspirations have been tossed into the swamplands.

It is difficult to imagine that next year will be different. Britain's trainers do not know what went wrong on Saturday. Even Michael Dickinson has no answer.

"I really don't know what the Europeans can do to be more competitive," he said. "I saw all their horses out on the track on Wednesday and I thought they looked terrific and moved well. They didn't look over the top. They looked magnificent. I went back to the barn and I said `boys we've got a fight on our hands'." These, however, were high-mileage vehicles with a flashy waxing.

Pat Byrne says he can never imagine a day when European horses will make a significant impact at a Breeders' Cup. The only theory he offers is for the travelling horses to arrive as near to post time as possible in an effort to convince them they have not been plopped into alien territory.

"I've got a belief that horses are not as good second time off the aeroplane," he said yesterday. "First time they run big, but then they're a bit flat. At Gulfstream it will be best for the Europeans if they go in straight off the boat.

"It's good that they keep trying and, if I had the right horse, I'd love to do this in reverse and come over for something like the Guineas. But it would be tough over there. It would be the opposite to the Brits coming here and I'm sure we'd find it a struggle."

And ultimately it may not be a bad thing for team Europe to feel the humility that was forced on them on Saturday. Several of our leading trainers will now have to concede that their home domination is not an exportable commodity.

Frankie Dettori will now know that he is still in jockey academy. While Pat Day executed the perfect display on Awesome Again in the Classic, young Frankie was out in the middle of the track where his punishment of Swain had taken him. Dettori, in fact, delivered Europe's only beating on Saturday. For the rest of Breeders' Cup XV it was all coming the other way.

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