The Dickinsons and the King George VI Chase were a favourite festive double of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Between 1978 and 1985 the Dickinson family, Tony, Monica and Michael won the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on six occasions and the 1981 race was abandoned because of frost and snow.
The Northern family based at Harewood stables in Yorkshire, transformed National Hunt racing during that period with Michael becoming champion National Hunt trainer for the first time in 1981/82.
In our latest blog we asked Michael a series of questions about his memories of the King George and the Christmas holiday period.
What was your first recollection of the King George VI Chase?
Arkle winning in effortless fashion. The race was always the target for any of our top chasers from the beginning of the season. The King George is a Championship Steeplechase in its own right. Nearly as important as the Gold Cup and far more important than the Whitbread Gold Cup (now Bet 365) and the Hennessy Gold Cup (now Ladbrokes Trophy) which are all handicaps after all is said and done. The King George is a close second to the Gold Cup and should not be viewed merely as a trial. I don't think anybody views the Ascot King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes as purely a trial for the Arc. The King George is a Grade I Steeplechase on its own merit.
Arkle won the race in 1965.
Were you ever close to a ride in the race?
Unfortunately not. I was looking forward to riding Broncho II in the race. He was one of my 5 winners as a jockey at the Cheltenham Festival.
Prior to the Dickinson family's raids at Kempton very few Northern horses used to run in the race. Why was that?
Going back 80 years ago it has always been difficult for the Northern trainers to compete with the Southern trainers. They did not have the rich owners to buy them the best horses. It wasn't really until Peter Easterby, who was champion trainer three times, that Northern trainers got any respect at all.
Peter Easterby was Champion National Hunt trainer in 1978/79, 1979/80 and 1980/81.
What were the attributes of each of the Dickinson’s winning horses; Gay Spartan, Silver Buck and Wayward Lad?
Gay Spartan would have won a Cheltenham Gold Cup on heavy going.
Silver Buck was a lovely horse. He didn't like being in front too long that is why he never won his races by very far. He was a very kind horse and a true champion.
Wayward Lad was probably the best jumper of a fence I've ever seen. Time and time again he would gain lengths in the air.
On 27 December 1982 you had a world record 12 winners. Had you always planned to run 20 horses and could you explain the logistics of the operation?
On November 1 in 1982 our horses were running well. Having had 2 glasses of wine over dinner I announced to my parents and Sandy Dudgeon, who was staying with us at the time, and who is now a Senior Steward Elect at the Jockey Club, that we were going to break the world record of number of winners in a day. At the time my father was hugely embarrassed that I come out with such a statement in front of Sandy and his reply was “You never know what the silly boy is going to come out with next". We only had 55 horses and we picked 28 horses who I thought had a winning chance for a race on Boxing Day. I failed to get 8 of the horses ready to race on 27 December but ended up running 20. 12 won and only 1 wasn't in the first 3. It was relatively easy because we had a fantastic team of boys at that time. We had 22 working in the yard of which 17 had ridden winners so it is fair to say I had a lot of help.
The 12 winning horses were: Wayward Lad (King George VI Chase), Delius and Happy Voyage at Wetherby, W Six Times and Fearless Imp at Market Rasen, Brunton Park, Prominent Artist and Slieve Bracken at Wolverhampton, Marnik and Thornacre at Huntingdon and Londolozi and B.Jaski at Sedgefield.
Which of the King George VI Chase winners do you feel was the most impressive?
I'm not going to pick one. They are all special for Dad, Mum and myself.
Gay Spartan won the race in 1978
Silver Buck won the race in 1979 and 1980 and was 3rd in 1982
Wayward Lad won the race in 1982, 1983 and 1985 and was 3rd in 1984.
On King George VI Chase day do you still wish you had a runner and make a point of watching on television?
I always try and watch the race on television but I don't hanker on a return because there are so many good trainers around now armed with lots of ammunition.
Blog by Stephen Wallis, Visitor Services.
We would like to thank Michel Dickinson for his help with this blog.
Photos courtesy of George Selwyn (Silver Buck), Alpha Press (Group shot with Silver Buck and Wayward Lad) and Provincial Press (Gay Spartan).