Robert Heathcote, one of ten children growing up in Launceston,Tasmania, came from a non-racing background where his early career choices could not have been any further from Horse Racing. He began his working life with the Examiner newspaper as a Photo Engraver. Upon completion of his indentures, he embarked on an overseas ‘adventure’ to Europe.
Rob was to spend the next fifteen years travelling extensively all over the world working initially with Contiki Tours as a Guide and a Tour Manager with Industry Heavyweights Trafalgar Tours and Insight International Travel and he also managed a Ski Lodge in an Austrian Ski resort for several winter seasons.
Robs first introduction to the world of Thoroughbred Racing was visiting the many racetracks of England where he worked with his brother, Wayne. He got to witness some of the worlds finest horse flesh including the great, Danehill race.
Rob then decided to move back to Australia to settle down closer to home and start a family and decided on Brisbane due to the nice climate. His brother had a number of horses in training with many of the leading trainers and Rob became his racing manager working with the trainers and liasing with his brother on their progress and race planning.Whilst initially hesitant to take up the challenge of training racehorses with his limited knowledge, it was a challenge he was not to turn away from and he would throw himself into the task, absorbing as much information as he could in the early years. Robert was granted his racehorse trainer’s license in 1997 and he applied his life skills and common sense to finish sixth in the Premiership in his first year with only a small team of racehorses. Ever willing to learn and improve his skills, he sought advice from some of the industry greats in Eric Kirwan and the late Bruce McLachlan. “I made some mistakes, but I was very careful not to make them again and to learn from them” he says!
Over the next 15 years Rob has trained over 900 winners and was named the 2008/09 Queensland Metropolitan & Provincial Trainer of the Year and followed this up with Queensland Trainer of the Year for the past two years as well as the metropolitan premier trainer for the past 4 years. The current racing season has seen him win another Group one win in the time honoured Toorak Handicap to go with Woorims scintillating win earlier in the year at Caulfield in the Oak Leigh Plate. Solzhenitsyn has gone to the top of the tree alongside the ever consistent stable star in Buffering with further group class wins.
Robert is married to Vicky, they have two teenage children, Nicholas 17 years old and Charmaine who is 16 years old.
Rob believes that owners are the most important people in racing, some he has had from the first year he started training, a testament to his great communication, regular updates and his very approachable personality that makes owners feel like part of the family.
An Amazing Journey to the Top Courtesy of Steve Moran. Racing Victoria
Robert Heathcote has made an amazing transition from a tour guide to premier trainer as STEVE MORAN reports
So intriguing is the tale of Tasmanian born, Queensland based racehorse trainer Robert Heathcote it's hard to know where to begin. So, let's start with another trainer Peter Moody who was in Brisbane when Heathcote began his training career in 1997. 'Mate, he couldn't put a head collar on when he started. He wasn't a horseman's arsehole. I'm sure he'll tell you that himself,' Moody said of his colleague. Heathcote duly obliges. 'I'm not a horseman. Would never call myself that. I knew absolutely nothing when I started,' the affable former tour guide volunteered very early in our conversation.
Horseman or not, he's learned something along the way which has seen him expertly prepare and place the likes of Buffering (who chases his first Group 1 win tonight); Solzenhitsyn (the last start Group 1 winner who runs tomorrow) and the Group 1 Oakleigh Plate winner Woorim. Moody says it's Heathcote's ability to learn and his people skills which have seen him do so well. 'I take my hat off to him. He's done so well out of nowhere. One of the keys is his people skills. He's likeable and people gravitate to him and he manages them so well. 'But he's also intelligent. He looked and learned the whole time in those early days. Trust me, he looked over every fence, into every yard and he took it all in. And you know, I think he learned to keep it simple. Feed 'em well, get 'em fit and run them in races they can win. 'Its not that complicated and I think our styles are similar. No ducks and drakes, no need to be tricky, no need to try to set one up for a punt. Just look after them and send 'em around,' Moody said.
Again, Heathcote obliges as if on cue. 'My simple rule is keep it as simple as possible. Rip the top off a Mitavite bag and feed them. There's no secret formula that's been handed down from generation to generation. That's just a myth. Training's not that hard, it's just common sense,' said the man whose first training tool was a book on physiology.
Heathcote does, nevertheless, acknowledge it's all about the learning and a certain work ethic. 'I was happy to observe others from day one in Brisbane and I got plenty of help. I also went to Ireland in 2000 and spent some time with Dermot Weld, James Fanshawe and Richard Hannon and also went to Coolmore. It wasn't a lot of time but I spent it asking questions. What do you feed, how much do you feed, how much do you work them, what do you do with feed and work on race day or the day before? 'And I'm committed to what I do. I'm at track work every day. I watch every horse work. Even so, I'm sure there are far better trainers out there than me but maybe they're not as good as me in terms of communication and PR. As a stable we want to be honest and decent and transparent. I want to keep the owners happy. I learned that in all my years as a tour guide, you've got to keep the customers happy,' he said. Heathcote spent the best part of 15 years as a tour guide in Europe after heading there as a 19-year-old. His first port of call was not a Walkabout pub but a German language school.
'My sister was married to a German,' he says, and incidentally he's one of ten children,'so I thought I'd attempt to learn the language and set up a base for myself. I met people from all over the world, travelled Europe on my own, made some contacts and eventually finished up working as a tour guide. It was brilliant.' Heathcote remembers it fondly. 'The general idea was do whatever you like, drink as much as you can... provided you brought the customers back happy. I loved it but it wasn't always easy. You might have 50 people on tour for 63 days and you're trying to keep them all happy. If I am successful now as a trainer and dealing with owners then I believe it's because of the experience gained on those tours,' he said. The overseas sojourn also included a stint working with his art-dealing brother Wayne who's best known in racing for his ownership of Quick Ransom, one of the early international Melbourne Cup trailblazers who contested the race in 1994 and 1995 - finishing fourth in the second year. That also involved travelling the world, sourcing primitive art.
Even when he returned to Australia, after meeting his New Zealand born wife Vicky - you guessed it - on a Trafalgar tour, a career in racing was anything but on the cards. 'I went to night school for six months in Brisbane looking to get some form of accreditation for work in the travel industry, ' he said. That he finished up in the Queensland capital and not in Auckland was decided on the toss of a coin.
That he does not regret. 'Queensland, it's got the climate to die for. I've been very happy here and the racing's good. I hate it when people knock the racing up here. I reckon we're going pretty well...we've had some luck, Kelly Schweida won the Crowley in Sydney with Better Then Ready, Liam Birchley won with Whateverwhenever last week and Bryan Dais produced Latin News to run a great race at Caulfield,' he said.
To cut a very long story short, Heathcote began training after managing his brother's horses. It's more convoluted than that but suffice to say he's now consumed by it and has no immediate desire to again be wandering the globe, save for the odd holiday to his favorite destination, Italy. 'It's funny isn't it, when you look at someone like Peter Moody,' he said unaware that I had also spoken to him, 'he says he could walk away from training any time and indulge himself in his fascination for war history and I understand that.
'But I've done it. Toured the Rhineland, seen the battlefields, been to Auschwitz, been to Flanders Fields, to the beaches of the D-day landings and I came to horses later than him. I'm as much fascinated by racing now as anything else,' he said.
Heathcote, and again note without any prompting, describes Moody as an 'incredible' person. 'What he's done is unequalled. We were young trainers together for a time in Brisbane and look where he's got to. Nobody really understands the incredible risks, financial and otherwise, he took when he went to Melbourne. 'He's too ballsy for me. Goes to the sales and doesn't bat an eyelid about paying $500,000 for one even if he doesn't have a client teed up. I get the shudders at 20 grand. I'm a Virgo, too conservative. Need to have all the i's dotted and the t's crossed,' Heathcote said.
In that regard, buying horses, he's full of praise for bloodstock agent Paul Willetts who secured Buffering and Solzenhitsyn for less than $35,000 all up. 'He's done a brilliant job as those horses have done for us,' said Heathcote who describes his success of recent years as 'surreal'. He also acknowledges the role played by key staff member Melissa Leitch. 'She worked for some of the best trainers before me and it's no coincidence that the horses have done well in the past couple of years when she's been travelling with them,' he said. Heathcote is enjoying the ride but taking those impostors, success and failure, in his stride as he looks forward to Buffering, hopefully, posting a deserved first Group 1 win at Moonee Valley.
The horse has ten first four finishes in Group 1's, including three behind Moody's amazing mare Black Caviar, but the one time photo-engraver (did we mention that) Heathcote has never been anything other than a gracious loser.
'You have to roll with the punches. At the end of the day it's only horse racing. There's reminders of that all the time. Robert Ciobo is one of the part-owners and he was my first outside owner. He lost his daughter to cancer. He visits her grave every day and then usually pops by the stables. That puts it all in perspective,' he said.
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