Friday, 1 September 2017

AN EPISODE THAT LEFT UK RACING ALL THE POORER



It was May 1986 when Veryan Bay made her racecourse debut at Chester against a backdrop of grey skies and a half reconstructed County Stand,the original having been burnt to the ground by two teenage delinquents the previous year.

Henry Cecil was watching from the makeshift trainers stand with heightened interest,but he was not the trainer of the animal.That was Michael Dickinson,who had chosen to tend to business back at the yard as all eyes focused on his first juvenile runner.

A well bred Storm Bird filly, but not a scopey specimen physically,Veryan Bay ran a poor race to finish well beaten.It did not mean much at the time,but would be a sign of things to come and a puzzling ,unexpected loss of mojo for a legend who did not restore his training credibility until moving to the States.

What cannot be denied is that while Harewood continued on a smaller but successful scale under Monica Dickinson,the whole episode left a void in the jumping scene.It would be wrong to say that it kick started the downfall of the quality of the sport in the north,but it made a contribution and it weakened the arm of the sport that indoctrinates most new fans.

The appointment of Dickinson by Robert Sangster was a bold one that captured the imagination and took many by surprise.It conjured up a mixed response.Some rightly construed it as show of disrespect to the sphere of the sport that has real soul,but at least we would have the opportunity to find out how far the genius touch could go.

We often wonder how some of the top national hunt trainers would handle a yard of blue blooded flat horses.We know they are a force in Cesarewitchs's,Chester Cups, Ascot Stakes and so forth, but that is almost their terrain anyway, thus means nothing.

M V O'Brien managed the transition spectacularly,and a decade on from Dickinson, Aiden O'Brien would reward those who took the gamble with him.Then there is the great survivor in David Elsworth,who has achieved feats right across the scale from top class sprinters to top class stayers,from Champion Hurdle class horses to Grand National and Gold Cup winners.

Still,there is a tendency from the 'purists' to look down at the jumping trainers and believe that most would be out of their depth with the pressure to get results at the highest level.

They would of course give credit for the skill, patience and for handling the frustrations that comes with tendon injuries and the grim task of phoning an owner to tell them that their animal would need a year on the sidelines,but they would then add that as jump racing was just a hobby,the pressure was unlike that in the real big business world of making stallions.

The Manton project was clearly no whimsical knee-jerk knee jerk urge from Sangster. I found an interview with the owner in the April 1984 edition of Pacemaker,where he was asked some insightful questions by Graeme Kelly.

There was an air of confidence about the whole plan. Sangster was even relaying to Kelly details of mares who were getting into foal then, and whose progeny would be two year olds in 1987.These were earmarked to be with Dickinson as he began his second year with runners at Manton.

Anyone doubting the determination behind the blueprint should consider the part of the interview when Sangster says ,"We will, as in the past, always be looking to pick up a nucleus of five or six two year olds which we would expect to make top class three year olds."

A perfectly fair summary of Dickinson's short tenure at Manton was that it was a disaster.Four winners in total.This failure was rubbed in the following season by the upturn in fortune with the stonewall reliable Barry Hills at the helm,training fifty five winners.

There is no doubt whatsoever that many of the established flat trainers were willing the venture to end in disaster.They would have watched on with glee as it became clear at an early stage that they were faced with little to worry about.

Sangster's own patience ran out in November,and with it the decision to terminate the trainer's tenure, not willing to risk another disastrous year.

Dickinson had many springing to his defence. It has often been stated lazily that he was given too many horses from the first crop of Golden Fleece,who turned out to be a flop in his short lived stallion career.

This is a view not supported by the facts.A look at the 1986 string listed by Dickinson in Horses in Training reveals from a string of forty six animals, he had thirty nine juveniles of which six were sired by the 1982 Epsom Derby winner.

Ironically, what turned out to be the best horse in the care of Dickinson at Manton was the future William Hill Sprint Championship winner Handsome Sailor, who Sangster had purchased from Ron Thompson as a lead horse for the juveniles.

At the time he was some way off the horse he would later be,but Dickinson did get two victories from him.We will never know how the career of this horse would have panned out if the Yorkshireman had remained in charge.

Not all the juveniles turned out to be duds though.Guest Performer,unraced at Manton, moved to John Hills and won the Kiveton Park Stakes the following season.Whether Hills jnr would have managed to produce her on the racecourse as a two year old is something else we can only guess at.

It is well documented that there was a clash of personalities between the work hard and play hard owner, and the work hard and never rest trainer,and when news of the dismissal hit the front pages of the Racing Post on 25 November,the paper quoted Sangster saying,"We do have fundamental differences of opinion which made it very hard for both of us. "

Reflecting upon the achievements of what built the Dickinson legend, it hits home when you realise that he only held the licence at Harewood for four years.

Trying to compare this with the length of time that Martin Pipe held a licence is comparing apples with pears,as Dickinson inherited a quality string from his father.Still,when Pipe hit the headlines with his first major success with Baron Blakeney in the 1981 Triumph Hurdle, he would go on and hold the licence for a further twenty five years,breaking record after record.

Paul Nicholls is more similar to Dickinson than Pipe,with an emphasis leaning heavily to quality,and for chasers over hurdlers. He has held a licence for twenty six years,but more notably it will be twenty years this December since See More Business won him his first King George V1 Chase.

At end of the day all the truly great racehorse trainers combined regular success and longevity.
We wanted to see how Dickinson would handle the dips in form, the consecutive year or two when misfortune strikes and all that can go wrong does.

We have a cringeworthy obsession in this country over being 'proud' how our fellow nationals perform in a foreign arena.Bale,with Real Madrid, Johnny Wilkinson, with Toulon,not forgetting Gazza at Lazio - but all are lost to their respective home based leagues.What is so good about that?

Michael Dickinson was eventually a successful trainer in the states where they affectionately tagged him 'The Mad Professor'.Regrettably,whatever his merits as a trainer across the pond,it was no cause at all for celebration or grandness to the great many dismayed by the void he left when deserting the the UK jumping scene and not returning.

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