'I put a needle in my arm and there was nothing left inside of me' David Vandyke
Published: March 25, 2016 - 5:56PM
Some men spend their lives chasing something. Some just run away.
Some don't know what they're looking for yet blindly stumble along the road anyway, believing if they find it, if they can hold on to it for a second, they will be complete.
And who knows? Maybe happy, too.
Vic Hayes knew what would make him whole. If he found a horse that could win the Golden Slipper, that would be enough, and he blew much of his life and all of his fortune chasing it.
His son, David Vandyke, chased and ran and chased and then he found something. That something was heroin and it almost killed him.
"One day, I put a needle in my arm – heroin – and there was nothing left inside of me," he explains. "I just said to God, 'Help'. That's all I could do. I felt worthless. No human force could save me from that point. I just said, 'Help. It's over. I can't do it'. I remember that moment because, believe it or not, I became allergic to heroin from then on. If I had it, I'd become violently ill and end up in hospital."
With heroin no longer an option, he sought a final alternative. "I went to the stables at Kembla Grange, and I got a hose, and I drove up into the mountains behind the racecourse. I went down a dirt track and pulled up. I would go to this place to do drugs, because nobody was ever there. I put the hose into the exhaust and through the back window, turned it on … and then I passed out.
"I wouldn't have had long to go before I was dead when a guy who was walking his dog down the path saw the hose in the back of the car, rushed over, opened the door …"
The stranger dragged Vandyke out and onto the ground. Police and ambulance rushed to the scene before the Westpac rescue helicopter airlifted him to the Prince of Wales Hospital at Randwick, where he was placed in the decompression chamber and pulled back from the brink.
Two weeks later, as he sat in the mental ward, Vandyke opened his eyes.
"How does that happen?" he asked himself. "I'm still here."
He could chase and run no more.
"From that point, I thought there was a purpose here for me, but I don't have the power to find that person or fulfil it," he says. "What I do have is the ability to admit I am powerless. It's just beyond me. So I threw myself into recovery."
Vandyke hasn't had a drink for 18 years. He hasn't had a drug for a decade. Last Saturday, at Rosehill Gardens, he started his first runner in the Golden Slipper with Yankee Rose, who motored home to finish second to Capitalist by a half length.
With better luck, the slightly built filly that cost $10,000 as a yearling might've won the famous $3.5 million race. A few extra strides was all she needed.
While the filly's eclectic mix of owners – from nurses and hairdressers and scaffolders who have never raced a horse before – were overjoyed, Vandyke started repeating the "serenity prayer" in his head.
The prayer is customarily said at the beginning and end of most 12-step meetings for those grappling with addiction, whether it's to alcohol, drugs or the toughest one of all – love.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
"I think she should've won," Vandyke, 50, reflects. "However, the serenity prayer is one of the great tools of recovery. To accept the things I cannot change. That allows me to be grateful about what happened. For my personal growth, to become a better person, I was better off running second – as a sober and clean man."
Vandyke is also addicted to horses. He understands them more than he will ever understand people.
He's also addicted to racing. He was standing on the winning post when Kingston Town won the Sydney Cup at Randwick in 1980. When he was 12, he'd catch the train on his own to Rosehill and Warwick Farm and even Hawkesbury to watch the gallops.
Then he started going to the stables belonging to his father, who was an owner, breeder and part-time trainer.
"I disconnected in my early days from people," Vandyke says. "When I left school and went to the stables, I spent more time than most with the horses. They're such sensitive animals."
That's why, in the week heading into the Golden Slipper, he spent as much time as he could with Yankee Rose.
"I need to be with the horse," he told me days before the race. "She's my safety ground; that connection with her. I have more connection with horses than any connection that I've ever had with people."
The person who he connected with the least was his father, a self-made millionaire who had dragged himself out of poverty through hard work, invested prudently in property, land and businesses in the Botany area, and by the late 1970s had a fortune worth $8 million.
Then Hayes found racing, which can suck up money like a vacuum cleaner. He became obsessed with winning the Golden Slipper, the richest race in the world for two-year-old horses.
He plunged thousands as he chased the dream, taking dozens of his broodmares to stallions he thought would deliver him the prize. "He wasn't a happy person," Vandyke says. "Rarely did I see him excited or happy about anything. He was very disconnected. He was an alcoholic. I didn't have a good relationship with him. I don't think anybody did. Very distant, very puritanical, very judgmental. He was someone who I was never going to be able to please, no matter what I did.
"He just thought if he won the Slipper that would complete him. That would make him whole. I didn't know my father before racing and the Slipper came along. I can't recall a time when it wasn't drummed into me, 'The Slipper will make us whole. The Slipper will give us what we need."
Along the way, Hayes won four Breeder's Plates – an early lead-up race to the Slipper – but the closest he came to winning the race he coveted the most was fifth with Karoi Star in the late 1970s. His son wasn't obsessed about winning the Golden Slipper. But he was always going to be a horse trainer. He didn't chase it. The job found him.
Vandyke first trained out of Kembla Grange in 1990, and by the age of the 22 had won the premiership. "Success came quick and so did the trappings of success," he recalls. "I had a pretty big ego."
His horses were consistently winning in Sydney. He was the next big thing. Then it came crashing down. "I had a couple of horses drugged by one of my employees and the rug was pulled out from under me. I didn't really recover from that. I was a bitter, resentful person. It triggered a lot of my character defects."
He spiralled out of control in the years that followed. He was sleeping in his car in Kings Cross at one stage, injecting or snorting whatever hard drugs he could find or afford. When he woke up in the mental ward at the Prince of Wales hospital a fortnight after attempting suicide, he committed himself to recovery.
It was the only way out, and the best way was through a 12-step program, a set of guiding principles first conceived by Alcoholics Anonymous in the US in 1938. He gravitated towards AA, then Narcotics Anonymous but then landed in Sex Addicts Anonymous, because it was his connection with others that troubled him the most. Not with horses but people.
"That helped me on a deeper level because relationships are where I struggle," Vandyke explains. "I found a 70-year-old sponsor, who was a retired Catholic priest. I connected with him. But through those early stages of recovery it was one day at a time. I said to myself, 'I can't do this for long, but I'll just do it for today'."
Days became months and they became years. In 2010, he applied for his trainer's licence after a 10-year absence and that talent he had in his early 20s was still there. He won feature and Group races with horses like Arabian Gold, Lamasery and Prince Cheri. He now has 45 in work at his stables at Warwick Farm.
Racing in his blood: David Vandyke. Photo: Daniel Munoz
In the week before the Slipper, he had his biggest winner when Sir John Hawkwood won the Sky High Stakes, which delivered $210,000 in prizemoney for the owners.
A story in The Sun-Herald the next day described Vandyke as "one of the best horsemen going around". Few would've given the description a second thought. Vandyke lingered on is significance.
"People didn't want to talk to me 10 years ago," he says. "I was walking around headless, wondering how long I would be alive for. And here I am, recognised as a successful trainer."
Would his father be proud of him? Vandyke doesn't know. Vic Hayes died around the same time his son was feeling his way in the early stages of recovery.
Vandyke has often said he changed his surname to avoid confusion with leading trainer David Hayes. He reveals another reason.
"Fortunately, when he died, my mother Jean remarried a wonderful man," he says. "I took on her maiden name, and her and her husband got so much pleasure out of seeing me get so much recent success. It helped my recovery that my father wasn't here to see it."
I first met Vandyke on the Tuesday before the Golden Slipper. We sat on his couch in his weather-beaten fibro house near his stables, watching the barrier draw on his laptop, while others wore suits and ties at the official function at Rosehill.
He admitted the week had stirred many emotions.
"I'm not sleeping well," he said. "There's a lot going on for me but I'm comfortable in the fact that I am letting myself feel what I'm feeling, and I'm not from running it. I'm not taking a sleeping tablet. I haven't had a drink for 18 years. I haven't had a drug for 10 years. I'm not covering the feelings as I progress into Saturday."
In other words, he's not running. But he was conscious about the chase.
"There's some concern about success because I'm an addict by nature. I wouldn't want to get addicted by success," he said. "If I win a race, I have the text messages, the phone calls, the media attention … The success in life I want to feel is from right relationships and being appreciative of being here."
In the Slipper, Yankee Rose was superb. Jockey Zac Purton, who had flown in from Hong Kong for the ride, lamented after the race that the new whip rules preventing a jockey from striking the horse more than five times before the final 100m had been critical.
He said: "If I was able to get into her a little bit earlier I think she may have made it very interesting. But I had to wait and it was too late."
Unlike his father, there is life beyond the Slipper for Vandyke.
Sir John Hawkwood races in the Neville Selwood Stakes at Rosehill on Saturday, with a view to running in the Sydney Cup on day two of The Championships. Cosmic Cube starts in the Doncaster Prelude, with a view to qualifying in the famous mile race at Randwick on day one.
Then there's Yankee Rose, who will go close to starting favourite in the $1 million Sires' Produce, which is also on day one.
With headlines races comes greater responsibility, and an opportunity for Vandyke to learn more about himself.
He's been an open book about his recovery, and says the racing fraternity hasn't judged. If anyone has, he doesn't know.
Why so open?
"Because I have to be to stay sober," he says. "If I start hiding who I am, I'm not going to make it. Where does it end? I need to connect with people on a real level and if they're not comfortable with who I am and what I've done, that's fine. I want to live one day at a time. If I lose the importance of where I'm at and how I got here in recovery, then I'm not going to make it. If I win the Slipper one day, and I have a drink or drug, I've lost the war."
He still wants to win it, just so you know.
But years of struggle and hurt and anger and pushing himself so far to the edge until a stranger dragged him out of a car in the middle of a forest means Vandyke has rare perspective.
It's an outlook that comes when you break yourself open and examine all those ugly, shitty parts of your soul.
For an addict, it's easier to run. It's easier to chase. Confronting yourself is much harder than winning the Golden Slipper.
"I never want the Slipper or any other big race to change me," Vandyke says. "I'm wanting to be the person after the race that I am before it. I never want to be complete. The day I think I'm complete is the day I've lost sight of who I should be."
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