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INDEPENDENT HORSE RACING NEWS
A life based on principles saved David Vandyke from addiction and he isn’t going to stop now that he is training, writes Michael Cox.
On the face of it, David Vandyke keeps making bad business decisions.
When the idea is put to him in the warm pre-dawn stillness at Sunshine Coast Racecourse – that the biggest decisions he has made don’t make much business sense – he explains how, while they may not have been easy, they made perfect sense, then and now.
“They may have cost me money but I don’t work on that plane … but if I did I would probably still be in Sydney,” Vandyke says. “The decision to move to the Sunshine Coast – from a worldly, successful vantage point, appeared – or could have been interpreted, as a backward step. It was the right step for me, and that was all that mattered.”
A notoriously early riser – his alarm sounds before 2am most mornings – it is not yet 6am but Vandyke is halfway through a normal person’s working day, sitting with the silence, four stories up in the racecourse grandstand.
He has checked each horse individually, feeds are done and he awaits the horses scheduled for fast work that morning. A magpie – knowing the regimented routine of the grandstand loner – swoops in for a pinch of mince Vandyke prepares each evening and brings for the birds each morning in a small plastic container.
As idyllic as this scene seems, the move from bustling Warwick Farm to the serenity of the Sunshine Coast was one of those ‘bad’ business decisions. When Vandyke won his maiden Group 1 in the 2016 Sires’ Produce with Yankee Rose, he had hauled his career, and life, from the scrap heap.
However the trainer wanted to frame his “lifestyle” decision to move north, most experts thought it was likely that his first Group 1 winner would be his last.
David Vandyke and Yankee Rose before the G1 Memsie Stakes of 2017. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images)
But then it wasn’t. He not only kept Yankee Rose, who placed in a Cox Plate behind Winx, but he also soon had one of Australia’s best young racehorses, Alligator Blood. Until he didn’t. Bad business decision number two was letting his second Group 1 winner walk into another stable.
Having settled into Queensland, he then took a stand against what he saw as a substandard Eagle Farm course proper, refusing to send horses to the state’s premier track. Another principled, but expensive, stance.
At each step of Vandyke’s career his past has been unpacked in the media. Plenty has been written about Vandyke’s addiction, his rapid rise-to-flameout as a young trainer at Kembla Grange, a story of drug use and a long ban, but less is written about his recovery. His story is presented as if it were two different people, a simplistic two-part story made up of the gory past and the glorious present.
Vandyke explains that those bad decisions aren’t business decisions at all, just decisions made based on the same principles that saved his life.
“If I was to be driven or guided by worldly success or the desire to make money, then I would have made a lot of different decisions before moving here or letting Alligator Blood go,” he says.
“I would have made different decisions when I came into recovery. But my decisions then had to be based on gaining sanity, peace and a greater understanding on how I could progress to overcome addiction.
“If I don’t go to Eagle Farm – or whatever decision I have made – it always felt like they were decisions I had to make to be the recovering person I am, even though they might not directly be related to recovery from addiction.
“They were tools I had learnt through recovery. So when I decided not to go to Eagle Farm with horses the decision was simply based on ‘what should I do for the welfare of my horses?’ and that is the principle I have learned in recovery. It isn’t ‘what can I do to make the most amount of money?’, or ‘how am I going to win the most races possible?’ Sometimes it seems like I have had success despite myself, because it is not like I have gone out there with this great desire to be the best, I have gone out there to be the best person I can, and not to be the best trainer.”
I have gone out there to be the best person I can, and not to be the best trainer.
That success despite himself has been considerable. Vandyke could have grown his stable beyond its current 44 boxes but has consistently boasted one of the best strike rates for a trainer of his size in Australian racing. Since moving to Queensland Vandyke has trained more than 360 winners at a strike rate of 23.4 per cent.
Then there is Gypsy Goddess, who fulfilled her trainer’s mission by adding a crucial Group 1 to her page in June’s Queensland Oaks at Eagle Farm, the track Vandyke eventually returned his runners to.
Gypsy Goddess and William Pike on their way to Queensland Oaks victory. (Photo by Michael McInally, courtesy of Racing Queensland)
“I am not even a Queensland metropolitan trainer, I am a Queensland provincial trainer north of Brisbane, so to get a horse of the year, it feels like a great blessing to have a horse like her in my stable,” he says. “When I moved I wasn’t to know that I would get a horse like Alligator Blood or Gypsy Goddess or that I would fill the 38 boxes I got then, that has all come from the decision to live life as I feel I am required to by my Higher Power, the guiding force that has brought me to this point of sobriety and sanity.”
True to form, Vandyke has taken an unorthodox approach to the AU$10 million Golden Eagle, heading into the race first-up, the race being the only one planned for the spring. Gypsy Goddess’ ownership is headed by two long-time associates, vet Chris Lawler and the stable’s biggest owner, the loyal and low-key Bob Jones, who also has a majority ownership in Nature Strip Stakes hope Weona Smartone on the same day.
“Gypsy Goddess has a Group 1 now so anything is a bonus,” says Vandyke, who has plans to expand his stable to 64 horses after some aggressive buying at yearling sales earlier this year. “We are in a good space and I feel like we are ready with the addition of some key staff. I think we have proven the move is a success – we have had two of the last five Australian champion fillies – that shows what we can do from here. Obviously it was the right decision coming here.”
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