Scooter finds a different gear for Flat Out Classic challenge

Veteran trainer Dickey pits horse of a lifetime against the big stables for richest prize in US racing
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The old man moves down the shed row, steady and placid as the Ohio River across town, and you would say he must make a good neighbour, wry and courteous and God-fearing as he is. Which is just as well, because "Scooter" Dickey only has five horses and is duly obliged to share a barn with rival trainers. Five horses, yet he can stop outside one of the stalls he has hired and watch a Hispanic groom patiently dressing the shins of one of the favourites for the richest prize on the American Turf.

Flat Out and Dickey share a mutual flair for their underdog role on Saturday. In the Breeders' Cup Classic they will be taking on Uncle Mo, perhaps the best horse ever trained by the prolific, record-breaking Todd Pletcher; and So You Think, the southern hemisphere champion now seeking to extend his dominion for the prolific, record-breaking Aidan O'Brien. Flat Out has chronic foot trouble, at one time managing a single start over 20 months. And he is trained by a septuagenarian who started out on the bush tracks of Kansas. "Right," says Dickey, grinning. "But I recognise each one of mine every morning. I know which one's in which stall..."

Dickey was 12 when he first rode races on the half-mile oval in his hometown. "You were kinda turning all the time," he remembers. "They had a fair every summer after harvest, a week of horse racing. I rode Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, thoroughbreds. In them days it was really rough riding. It wasn't controlled too good back then. I was lucky. The [worst] I ever had from a spill was a broken collarbone."

Of course, David only slew Goliath because he was not squeamish about using a sling. In Oklahoma one time, back in the 1950s, the adolescent Dickey came up against a mean old bully. "He kept shutting everybody off," he says. "You'd come down to the turn, he'd drop over on them. When he did it to me I slapped him across his rear with my whip, and he quit doing it. He didn't mess with me any more. I was probably 15. But you had to take care of yourself. It's all part of life. I've met all kind on the track, seen all kind. And the majority of them aren't good people, you know." He pauses. "But that's just like the outside world, there's bad ones out there too."

Flat Out is a mature animal, at five, but his truncated career means that his success in the historic Jockey Club Gold Cup, the premier East Coast trial for the Classic, represents a legitimate new peak, and a triumph of perseverance. The horse stands for hours upon a vibrating dais that stimulates the circulation through his brittle feet.

There have been times when Dickey had to quit his trade, to fall back on the lore he acquired over decades breaking yearlings. "I broke a lot of babies," he says. "I really enjoyed that, until I got too heavy – and that wasn't any good to them. But I don't care where you go, you'll find the horse that can win." He gazes in wonder upon the horse, pawing the straw. "He knows he's pretty good. He knows people are paying attention to him."

For most of his life, Dickey presumed his toils would have to be their own reward. He knew Pletcher's father out in Nebraska, but most of the old horsemen of his generation have left no mark or legacy other than in the esteem of their peers. And then along came Flat Out.

"It's something you work for all your life," Dickey says. "There's a lot of good times but there are more bad times. The horses might not be faring well, but if you keep working you might get lucky, like I have. Racing got in my blood, and this is all I wanted to do all my life. I'm not the kinda guy could be in an office all day. It's outdoor work, there are cold days and hot days. But this is an amazing horse, and we're making sure we enjoy him."

Garrett Gomez strolls by and spots Dickey. The superstar jockey enfolds him in an admiring embrace, wishes him luck. "The man upstairs is looking after me, has done all my life," Dickey says. "My wife's been ill but he's kept her doing as well as she can. She's enjoying all this too. It's a good break for us old guys, us small guys. To get a chance like this. I'd love to win it. But no matter what, the horse has run hard for us all year, he's won money and gave us a good time. No matter what, we'll still be behind him. But I think he'll show up. Because he's stronger than all of us."