By Frank Vespe, That's Amore Stable
Once upon a time, there was a trainer widely considered to be “mad” and also a “genius.” His name was Michael Dickinson.
Most often, the words “mad” and “genius” were combined; most people thought of him as a mad genius, tinkering with exotic approaches to the hidebound game of horse racing and achieving racing feats seldom, if ever, witnessed previously.
First five finishers in the Cheltenham Gold Cup? Sure, no problem.
Bring Da Hoss to the Breeders’ Cup off a two-year layoff and win? You got it.
Occasionally, some people chose not to use the word “genius.” They thought that “mad” pretty much covered it. But they were in the minority.
Michael Dickinson was English, and so he was most often associated with turf racing. He also had a rather well-known desire to win the Kentucky Derby, and in this way, he was exactly like every other horse trainer in America. Shortly after our story, he would pursue that dream with a horse named Tapit, who won the Laurel Futurity and the Wood Memorial; that dream, alas, would not be fulfilled.
What Michael Dickinson was mostly not associated with, however, was dirt sprints, which in a way was too bad, because one of the three most important races contested in Maryland, the state in which he lived and trained, was the De Francis Dash (G1) — a six furlong contest on the dirt, or, as the Yanks liked to call it, the main track.
The De Francis Dash had its own interesting history. Inaugurated in 1990, the race memorializes Frank De Francis, who owned the Maryland Jockey Club until his untimely death in 1989. Typically placed a few weeks after the Breeders’ Cup, it provides one last opportunity for sprinters to make their case for Eclipse Awards; and four horses — Housebuster, Cherokee Run, Smoke Glacken, and Thor’s Echo — have successfully done so.
In 2003, a series of misfortunes visited on one horse — A Huevo — brought Dickinson and the De Francis together.
A Huevo was a talented, West Virginia-bred son of Cool Joe (who?) out of the Baldski mare Verabald. He had reeled off victories in his first four starts, including a track record in the West Virginia Breeders Classic (from which he was disqualified because of the presence of clenbuterol in his system).
What made A Huevo an intriguing horse in the De Francis was that the race was his third start off a layoff — a layoff of four years. After his win in the West Virginia race, A Huevo had suffered various injuries. Dickinson gave him two years off to recover but was dissatisfied. So he gave him another year. Still not ready. One more year? Yup, that does the trick.
The hot favorite in that year’s De Francis was former claimer Shake You Down, winner of four prior graded stakes that year, third-place finisher in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and owner of eight consecutive 100+ Beyers entering the race, with figures ranging up to 121. Shake You Down was sent to the post at odds of 4-5.
When the gates opened, Shake You Down, with good early speed, went forward to press the pace set by Crossing Point.
A Huevo, with no early speed, went directly to the back of the pack, and for a while, seemed to be going backwards.
But Shake You Down was getting quite a fight up front. Crossing Point led him through a quarter mile in 21 4/5 seconds and a half in 44 2/5. The pair was pushed along by a couple of others, and when Crossing Point finally backed out, local favorite Gators and Bears and Way to the Top continued to push Shake You Down.
Meanwhile, out in the middle of the racetrack, A Huevo was getting revved up. The bay came rolling up outside of the leaders, motored on by, and cruised to a nearly two-length win in 1:08 4/5. “Another Michael Dickinson miracle,” called track announcer Dave Rodman.
Others agreed. Owner Mark Hopkins told The Blood-Horse, “This might just be Michael Dickinson’s greatest achievement. It is mind-boggling what we went through with this horse. I have no idea what we’ll do with him but hopefully it will be half as spectacular as this was.”
The ending of our tale is a mixed bag.
Unfortunately, A Huevo’s subsequent efforts were nowhere near as spectacular as his De Francis. Even worse, a couple of years after the De Francis, he suffered injuries necessitating his euthanization. He won six of 12 career starts.
Michael Dickinson no longer trains horses. He is the godfather of synthetic surfaces in the United States, which means that the “mad genius” label continues to stick to him, although many horseplayers would probably lean more towards the “mad” side these days.
Shake You Down, who held on for second in the De Francis, raced for three more years, earned more than $1.4 million, and was retired sound and healthy. “He’s a grand looking son of a gun,” says John Evans, of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. “He looks like you could run him tomorrow.”
But probably not off a four-year layoff.