Turf Talk: How the Dickinson family became a dominant force in British racing

Harrogate Advertiser horseracing correspondent Jeff Garlick's latest weekly offering.

Wednesday, 27th May 2020, 9:03 pm
Updated Wednesday, 27th May 2020, 9:06 pm
Michael Dickinson with his famous five horses from the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup
Michael Dickinson with his famous five horses from the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup

A few weeks ago this column featured the career of local horse Wayward Lad. Several readers have been in touch asking to find out more about the Dickinson family who trained this star chaser.

Monica Birtwhistle, the daughter of a cotton manufacturer, was horse mad from an early age. She progressed from ponies to develop into one of the best show-jumpers in Britain

She also rode in point-to-points where she met Tony Dickinson, son of a prominent horse dealer.

They married in 1948, and had three children, the oldest being Michael who was born in 1950. In fact, Monica won the British Ladies show-jumping championship at Blackpool just months after giving birth to Michael.

Monica and Tony Dickinson had a remarkably close personal and professional partnership, and horses were their lives.

They built up a prosperous business dealing in horses and training pointers at a small rented yard at Gisburn near Clitheroe, Lancashire.

When Michael had ambitions to be a jockey they extended their business to include training under rules and had their first winner in 1968.

In 1969/70 Michael was crowned the champion amateur rider and partnered the stable’s first Cheltenham Festival winner, Rainbow Valley in the Kim Muir Chase. He then turned professional.

In the early years other good winners trained by the Dickinsons were The Chisler, Winter Rain, Dorlesa and Broncho who landed the Arkle Trophy and Mildmay of Flete Chase at Cheltenham.

Success attracted owners with more money to spend and the improved quality of raw material produced three champion chasers towards the end of the decade; Gay Spartan, Silver Buck and I’m a Driver.

Gay Spartan, their first champion won the 1977 Sun Alliance Chase and then put up the best performance by any horse over fences in the 1978/79 season when winning the King George VI Chase at Kempton.

His successor, Silver Buck, was the best novice chaser that year and also won the King George the following year.

It became apparent that the small yard at Gisburn was no longer fit for purpose, so they bought Poplar House at Dunkeswick, near Harewood and moved across the Pennines in 1979.

This really triggered the start of the Dickinson dynasty.

Michael’s riding career had been ended by injury and after spending two years studying training methods with the legendary Vincent O’Brien at Ballydoyle in Ireland, he took over the training licence in 1980 from his father.

Tony was Champion trainer in 1979 for winners trained (94), so Michael had a hard act to follow.

But in 1980/81 Michael himself became Champion trainer with 84 winners as Silver Buck completed a run of 10 consecutive wins and won a second King George. Bregawn and Wayward Lad were also cleaning up in novice chases.

In 1981/82 Michael again topped the training charts with the highlight being a one-two in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, with Silver Buck beating Bregawn. Rathgorman also won the Queen Mother Chase.

Poplar House enjoyed an annus mirabilis in 1982/83. They had 120 winners (at the time a British record), and won 12 races on Boxing Day including Wayward Lad in the King George, again a record.

Badsworth Boy won the Queen Mother Chase and everything was topped off by having the famous first five home in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The winners continued to flow in the 1983/84 season with Wayward Lad winning a second King George and Badsworth Boy a second Champion Chase. Michael was champion trainer for a third and final time.

Michael’s astonishing success led to him being hired by Robert Sangster to train his Flat horses and the family licence passed to Monica in the summer of 1984.

The Poplar House success story continued and had Browne’s Gazette won the 1985 Champion Hurdle, as he should have done, then Monica would have been the first-ever female champion trainer.

Wayward Lad became the first horse to win the King George three times and Badsworth Boy equalled the feat, completing a Queen Mother Chase hat-trick.

Monica’s last winner was in 1989 having trained 149 in addition to the 941 she had contributed to with Tony and Michael.

Tony Dickinson died in 1991, and Monica got great pleasure from watching the training successes of Michael who had moved to America and won two Breeders Cup mile races.

Her son-in-law, Tom Tate who trained at Hazlewood Castle Tadcaster, also benefitted from calling on Monica’s vast experience.

Monica died in 2008 at the age of 83 but Michael still lives in America, the last survivor of a true racing dynasty.