Michael Dickinson on Tapeta, Injuries and More

November 23, 2019

In addition to inventing, developing, honing, and perfecting the Tapeta surface, Michael Dickinson has won more than a fair share of significant races as a trainer both here in the US and abroad. His work with Da Hoss in winning his second Breeders’ Cup Mile is among the best in the sports history. He trained the Tapit, who in addition to being a Grade 1 winner on the racetrack has also become one of the top sires in racing. When we factor in horse welfare, which is precisely where the Sport of Kings is right now, Tapeta may be his biggest gift to the game.

Here are some of the US races Michael Dickinson has won. Obviously it is an enviable list.

  • Breeders’ Cup Mile (Grade I, twice)
  • The Wood Memorial (Grade 1)
  • Ashland Stakes (Grade I)
  • De Francis Dash (Grade I)
  • Gulfstream Park Breeders’ Cup Handicap (Grade 1)
  • Mother Goose (Grade I)
  • Sword Dancer Handicap (Grade I)
  • Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes Grade II)
  • Del Mar Derby (Grade II)
  • Jersey Derby (Grade II)
  • Bowling Green Handicap (Grade II)
  • Red Smith Handicap (Grade II)
  • Delaware Handicap (Grade II)
  • Sky Turf Classic (Grade II)
  • The Laurel Futurity (Grade III)
  • West Virginia Derby (Grade III)
  • Stars & Stripes Breeders’ Cup Handicap (Grade III)
  • Hawthorne Gold Cup (Grade III)
  • Fourstardave Handicap (Grade III)
  • Violet Handicap (Grade III)
  • Gallorette Handicap (Grade III)
  • Best Turn Stakes (Grade III)
  • Snow Goose Stakes (Grade III)

About a week ago I wrote “We Have Met the Enemy and It Is Us.” In the days immediately following that article the forming of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition was announced and Senator Dianne Feinstein of California signed on as a co sponsor of the Horse Racing Integrity Act. She had previously been outspoken about completely shutting down racing in California and possibly the country. Coincidences are for romance novels and progress is being made.

The industry is exploring all avenues to make the sport as safe as possible. A few years back synthetic tracks were thought to be a savior. California mandated they be used at all thoroughbred tracks only to back off of that after a few years. There were options on synthetic tracks then but just one has remained. Tapeta is not only the only synthetic track around today, it survived the removal of synthetics at all California thoroughbred tracks remaining in place all this time at Golden Gate Fields. We fast forward to today, and Tapeta is being considered for Del Mar and Santa Anita as we hear it. We also hear NYRA is looking into Tapeta.

The main knock on the old synthetic tracks were they were not really safer. I do not know that I ever read or saw a report or study that definitively demonstrated that. It was also “said” they caused more soft tissue injuries as opposed to fractures. Again I do not know if that is true or not or if there was ever enough time to study it. To find some of this out and more I reached out to Michael Dickinson who knows more than the rest of us about synthetics, and specifically Tapeta and he was gracious enough to share his thoughts.

Though short and sweet a lot is said and offered in the way of making things safer and more importantly …

as safe as possible…..

Here is how it went:

1.- Can you site any studies you are confidant in that state Tapeta is indeed safer than conventional dirt? If not or in addition what have been your personal observations in that area? 

The Jockey Club Injury Database claims that synthetics are 50% safer than dirt but that is referencing the older synthetics.  The new synthetics surfaces, ie the Tapeta 10, have improved significantly and we hope with further modifications over the next few years to make that percentage even better.  

Tapeta 10 tracks in the UK – Newcastle and Wolverhampton – are 0 fatalities for 8799 starters. 

 Newcastle – 4223 safe runners since October 2018

Wolverhampton – 4576 safe runners since December 2018

0.03% fatalities over 3 years at both tracks

2- What do we say to horsemen who “claim” soft tissue injuries are more frequent with synthetic or Tapeta tracks? Is that your experience?

That is certainly not my experience training on the surface for over 20 years.  I’m not saying that we will eliminate injuries but Tapeta will definitely help to reduce them.  There are many components when putting in a synthetic track.  The actual installation is not the end of the equation.  The daily routine and maintenance is vitally important to the safety of the horses and jockeys. The Tapeta team is made up of lifelong horsemen and they work closely with the track superintendents to make sure the track is as consistent as possible from morning through the afternoon.    

3- You were ahead of the times developing Tapeta and recognizing the need for it. Did you see the state US racing is in coming or were you strictly precautionary and just looking to improve? 

When I bought Tapeta Farm I knew for it to be a success to attract top clients I had to have a very good surface.  It took me 4 years and 53 different samples before I came up with the original Tapeta.  A few years later my wife Joan Wakefield said “I can do better”.  So I told her you better learn all you can about sand, fibers, wax and polymers.  After 8 years of R & D and many trials she came up with Tapeta 10 – because of 10 improvements.

4- Do you feel synthetic tracks were given enough time and enough of a chance in what I guess we can call the first go around? 

Probably not.  Some of the surfaces weren’t quite good enough at that time.

5- Do you have any opinion on what seems to be an increase in fatalities specifically in Southern California? 

Santa Anita isn’t the only dirt track to have had a rash of injuries.  Over the past few years almost every dirt track in the USA has had a cluster of fatalities.  Dirt tracks are inconsistent and unpredictable and until we can control Mother Nature we will continue to struggle with them.  We’ve heard a lot recently about the need to study moisture content which is all well and good but it still won’t eliminate sloppy tracks when it rains.  

I know most of the track superintendents and they are really good people, they are conscientious and work hard and are doing the best they can with a difficult surface to manage.

6- In addition to what I will assume is installing Tapeta, what additional changes would you call for to make racing as safe as we possibly can  

The obvious but controversial answer to that is to adopt stricter and uniform medication rules.

Some numbers and statistics can be manipulated or interpreted differently. Some can’t. Zero fatalities with over 8000 starters has to get the attention of any racetrack owner, executive, or safety board member. None of us want to see a pre synthetic and post synthetic list of Kentucky Derby winners. We all get that but if it truly saves horses lives is it worth the offset? I have to say yes. We dealt with it in the Breeders’ Cup and one would be hard pressed to argue Zenyatta’s Breeders’ Cup Classic win on synthetic was not one of the more thrilling editions of the race. Good horses adapt. Good people adapt as well.

Tapeta is the only synthetic still around. There is a reason for that. It is still being improved and has evolved considerably since introduced. Racing on synthetic, or more precisely Tapeta is a lot better than no dirt racing at all. I think many of us can force ourselves to get used to no sloppy tracks. We owe it to the horses to at the least consider the safety aspect of Tapeta. Racing is at a crossroads. The survival of the sport no longer rests on financial solvency and a good business model building a wider customer base. Sure we have to do that and more but the safety of the horses comes first or there is nothing else.

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

View Jon Stettin

Another great piece by Jonathan! twitter.com/jonathanstetti...

G1 Handicapping (@G1Handicapping) View testimonials