Dawson, Michael John (1865–1926), jockey, horse breeder, and trainer, was born 10 September 1865 in Kildare town, son of Andrew Dawson, jarvey (cab driver), and Eliza Dawson (née White) from Kildare. He was initially apprenticed as a jockey to Pat Connolly, a friend of his father, riding five winners in 1882, his first year. Weighing only 5 st. 7lb. (34.9 kg), he was one of the most sought-after jockeys in the country and was renowned as an intelligent, brave, and committed racer, not averse to jumping the flag in the days before starting stalls. He later moved to the stables of Rice Meredith (d. 1897), first at Curragh View and later at Rathbride Manor, and rode three Irish Derby winners in four years in the 1890s, initially on Kentish Fire (1890) and subsequently on the Meredith-trained Roy Neil (1892) and Bowline (1893). Meredith had made Rathbride into the finest yard in Ireland but had to retire in 1893 after an investigation into an incident where a horse, Master Joe, was run on successive days. Dawson took over at Rathbride and combined riding and training until around 1900, winning the Railway Stakes in 1895 on Winkfield's Pride and the Beresford Stakes in 1898 on Wild Bird as both rider and trainer. His first stable jockey was David Conlon, who was regarded as a star in the making but died tragically in 1903. Conlon was followed by Frank Morgan (who won the Irish Derby in 1904 on Royal Arch) and in 1910 by the great Joe Canty (qv), who would become Dawson's son-in-law. Once his training career began in earnest, Dawson went on to become the greatest trainer of the early decades of the twentieth century, succeeding the previous doyen of Irish racing, H. E. Linde (qv) and winning up to ten trainers' championships between 1906, when records first began to be kept, and 1926. (Different sources credit the 1921 trainer's championship to different trainers; all, however, agree that Dawson won more races than everyone else, if not more prize money.) In his training career he had 1,645 winners totalling £218,716 in prize money (1,214 winners and £164,281 from 1906), setting a record for prize money in 1908 of £11,205 that was not exceeded until 1923, when J. J. Parkinson (qv), his great rival of the period, won £12,150.
Although Parkinson was quantitatively more successful, and had a longer career, Dawson is generally regarded as the superior trainer, as he tended to concentrate on fewer horses and races, preferring to develop a small stable of potentially high-class animals for owners who were prepared to allow them the time to develop to their optimum. In doing so he made a vital contribution to the reputation of the Irish thoroughbred internationally. He won the Irish Derby four times as a trainer: with St Brendan (1902), probably the best horse he ever trained; Royal Arch (1904); Killeagh (1906); and Bachelors's Double (1908). He also won two Irish Oaks, with Merrivale (1902) and Tullynacree (1911), making a total of six Irish classic victories to add to his three Irish Derbys as a rider. Dawson won the Irish Cesarewitch on four occasions (1903, 1907, 1912, 1917), and also won nine Anglesea Stakes, six National Stakes, four Railway Stakes, and the Phoenix Stakes twice. Although most of his success was on the flat, he was also adept at National Hunt, training his own horse Sweet Cecil to an Irish Grand National win in 1907, and winning again as trainer with Kilbarry in 1924. Among his other victories over fences as a trainer were the Galway Plate (1903, 1909) and Hurdle (1915, 1924). As a breeder his most famous horse was Hornet's Beauty, ‘one of the best sprinters ever sent from Ireland’ (Times, 24 Dec. 1926), which won thirty-one of its fifty-five starts – including an unbeaten run of fifteen races in 1915 – and is claimed by some to be the best gelding to race in England in the twentieth century. Other champion horses associated with him include Mount Prospect, Great Surprise, and Earla Mor.
Despite his great success he remained a painfully shy and rather secretive character, although he could be an entertaining storyteller when at home. He was extremely determined, conscientious and assertive in relation to his training methods, and was not afraid to argue with owners when their views differed from his. One of the consequences of his conscientious approach was that he had a rare ability to train a horse to win first time out. He was also an innovator: as a rider and trainer he employed a special racing snaffle, which meant that the harder a horse fought for its head the further the bit ran up its mouth, although this necessitated the jockey having a strong hold. Dawson had few interests outside racing, apart from the extensive farm attached to Rathbride. He died 22 December 1926 and is buried at Milltown cemetery, Co. Kildare.
He married (1897) Mary Mulready from Naas, Co. Kildare, they had three sons and two daughters. He was initially succeeded at Rathbride by his son Joseph (d. 1946) and subsequently by another son, Michael, who trained Sindon to win the Irish Derby in 1958.