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March 15, 2013

Madman Or Mad Genius?

Michael W. Dickinson covers miles after mile at a dead run and jumps coops and other fences when he follows Mr. Stewart's Cheshire Foxhounds on foot. Photo by Alec Thayer

Ahh, the pageantry and beauty of the hunt meet are a sight to behold.

Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds have been gathering since 1912 in the pristine country near Unionville, Pa. They are 90 or so horse-and-rider combinations strong on a Saturday morning—spotless, spit-shined and anticipating a great day of sport.

Ninety or so horses, riders and one self-proclaimed lunatic in running shoes, that is.

Michael W. Dickinson hunts on foot. In the first field.

“Whenever I get the chance, I like to follow the Cheshire Foxhounds in the beautiful countryside of Pennsylvania,” said Dickinson. “I make a pathetic attempt to follow the hunt on foot.”

Although he insists he’s far too old to ride to hounds, the 63-years-young Dickinson runs up to 10 miles on a given hunting day, leaping abundant coops, logs, ditches and a few streams in hot pursuit of the fox. His presence has been received well by the masters and members of the field, and Dickinson is happy to oblige their hospitality by holding gates and mending broken fences along the way, in addition to catching the odd loose horse. He claims not to have much of a training regimen, although he keeps active by running a mile or practicing 1-furlong sprints regularly and playing soccer twice a week.

“I have always been a lousy runner, but I really enjoy the thrill of the chase,” he said. “The Cheshire Hunt riders are fabulous people, and they are very tolerant when I get in their way and offer me much encouragement. Although I have a GPS to tell me how far I’ve traveled, it’s not needed, as I collapse after 10 miles.”

Dickinson, who’s been hunting since age 8, began a legendary racing career at his family’s yard near Yorkshire, England. A champion amateur jockey in England before riding professionally for a decade, Dickinson transitioned to training in 1980, reigning as Champion Trainer of National Hunt Racing for three consecutive years. Five of Dickinson’s many remarkable accomplishments are listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, including training the first five finishers in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup. He was inducted into the British Steeplechasing Hall of Fame in 1994.

Dickinson immigrated to the United States in 1987 and eventually built a training facility in Maryland. He quickly established himself as a pre-eminent trainer in American flat racing, winning with his first horse out of the gate, Gold Magistrate, at Philadelphia Park on June 30, 1987.

Dubbed the “Mad Genius” by the Daily Racing Form, Dickinson’s most tremendous accomplishment was training Da Hoss to repeat victories in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Mile. After winning in 1996, Da Hoss was plagued by setbacks and only ran one allowance race shortly before contesting the Mile in 1998, when he emerged victorious by a nose.

Dickinson approached Cheshire MFH Russell Jones about following the pack, first inquiring about car following, which led to following on foot. With the masters’ encouragement, Dickinson began turning up at various meets decked out in his running clothes, and he soon became part of the local color.

“He is a madman,” Jones said with a laugh. He and Dickinson have been great friends for more than 25 years. “But he just loves the hunting. If we get on a run in open country, he gets a ride with someone in a car in order to catch up. On a regular day, there he is, right around the bend.

“We have to be careful that we don’t run him over,” he continued. “Being a horseman, Michael has no fear of being in the middle of everything, and we often have to fight him for room on the trails.”

In spite of Dickinson’s racing achievements, hunting is his life’s first passion.

“It’s fascinating to watch the foxes,” he said. “They’re in their own territory and know it well and will make a sudden turn to lose the hounds. It’s always exciting watching the hounds work, and the Cheshire have a brilliant huntsman in Ivan Dowling. The Cheshire country is as good as anywhere in the world, and the Cheshire Hunt is world class.”

 
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