By Ray Thomas Courtesy of The Daily Telegraph Picture: Jodie Richter Source: The Daily TelegraphSO what would you rather do? Be paid to travel throughout Europe, visiting the world's most historic and beautiful cities, or cope with the toil and frustrations of 16-hour days, seven days a week training racehorses. Seems a no-brainer but Robert Heathcote gave up what most of us would consider a dream job as a European tour manager to become a racehorse trainer.
But Heathcote has never had any regrets about making the switch. Despite having no experience of training thoroughbreds, he has made a success of his career change, is now the dominant trainer in Brisbane and has top sprinters Buffering and Woorim in the Group 1 $650,000 Doomben 10,000 (1350m) at Doomben."I pinch myself to be honest," Heathcote said. "All I ever hoped to do was to have a level of success that pleased us and made ends meet."But we are now at the point where we are able to travel with our horses interstate, compete on the national stage and not only be competitive but to win good races and regularly be winning at home in Brisbane."And coupled with that is the emergence of the stable as the premier stable in Queensland with the last 3 premierships in the bank and going for 4!"It was never a goal of mine, it just eventuated - it's all a bit surreal."Certainly, Heathcote could never have imagined he'd be in this position when he left Australia as a 20-year-old on an adventure of a lifetime.He was to stay overseas for nearly 14 years. He first attended a German language college near Munich before he later moved to England where became a European tour guide with Contiki, later moving onto the industry heavy weights, Trafalgar and then Insight. He also ran a ski resort in Austria for a couple of years. Heathcote spent 13 years as a European tour manager and saw many the great sights of Europe and many other parts of the world."Italy is my favourite country," he revealed. "I love the food, wine, culture and way of life."Heathcote eventually gave up his job as a tour manager and spent a year travelling the world with his brother, Wayne, an international art dealer.Wayne also races a number of horses and took his brother to racetracks all over England. This is when Heathcote discovered his love of racing.Heathcote and his wife, Vicky, eventually decided to return to Australia to start a family and, in 1997, he became his brother's Australian racing manager.Within six months, Heathcote decided he wanted to have a go at training himself. He won a race with his second starter and has proven a fast learner."I made some mistakes but I was careful to learn from them and try not make them again," he said.Heathcote's years as a European tour manager have also indirectly assisted his training business."It's funny, when I first came into this industry, one of the first problems I recognised when managing my brother's horses was this incredible lack of communication that exists in the industry," he said. " I said to myself as a trainer that is one thing I wanted to be damn good at and I'm proud to say that its an area that I do very well in."I said to Steve Hewlett from 4TAB the other day when he was thanking me for doing something for him on radio that it would be remiss of us to not put this industry up on the pedestal and do everything we can to promote it."Unfortunately, too many media outlets just want to bag the industry non-stop."Look, we would all love to see Black Caviar race every Saturday, have race prize money through the roof, harmony between the race clubs, perfectly good (3) tracks every week - but the reality is it is not that easy."But even when you have a down day, of which there are plenty in this game, there is always next Saturday."And at Doomben, Heathcote is hopeful of having one of those "up days" when Buffering and Woorim contest the Doomben 10,000.Buffering, who has chased home the nation's best sprinters, Black Caviar, Hay List and Foxwedge in a string of major races, has his chance to finally win at Group 1 level tomorrow.Heathcote's stable star, a runaway seven lengths winner of the Coca-Cola Classic earlier this month, has recovered from a hoof complaint which forcedhim out of the BTC Cup two weeks ago when the gun sprinter was a hot favourite for the race."I'm comfortable now that Buffering will take his place in the 10,000 and run a very good race," Heathcote said."No doubting he has missed the BTC Cup and missed some work but he has had extensive walking exercise in the surf. He really hasn't missed thatmuch work and he did have a good fitness base from his Melbourne (autumn) campaign. A doubt must still be there though !"There are those who will argue 1350m is an unknown for him, bit of uncharted territory, but I counter that by saying he ran a close fourth in the Stradbroke last year."Buffering is part-owned by three former Socceroos, Craig Moore, Scott Chipperfield and Zeljko Kalac - and therein lies a tale.Kalac is responsible for the naming of Buffering. When he was playing in Europe, the former goalkeeper would often watch another galloper he part-owns, Humma race on the internet.But he would become so frustrated when the race vision would be interrupted by web "buffering" that he swore that was what he would name his next horse.Stablemate Woorim is also a story within a story. He gave Heathcote the first Group 1 of his training career when producing his trademark finishing burst to win the Oakleigh Plate at Caulfield,Heathcote had been desperate to win that breakthrough major after so many near misses, particularly with Buffering and Woorim."It was nice to get the monkey off my back," Heathcote said."We strive to get the best out of any of our horses, it's all we do, and it was great Woorim was the horse that won that first Group 1 for the stable."He's a lovely horse and I'm absolutely astounded by the amount of people who take him on board."I guess that is because of that thrilling nature of his finish."Everyone loves to hear it when they say 'here he comes down the outside'. He is so exciting to watch."Woorim has also had his issues, contracting a virus in Sydney when he ran the worst race of his career when failing to beat a runner home in the George Ryder Stakes behind Metal Bender.At his only run since, he ran seventh behind Sea Siren in the BTC Cuptwo weeks ago but Heathcote saw enough in that effort to believe the gelding would be hard to beat in the Doomben 10,000."I was happy with his run last start," Heathcote said."He knocked up the last 100m, which was understandable."His work this week has been very good, I'm really happy with him."As Heathcote strives for his first Group 1 win in his home state at Doomben tomorrow, he paused to reflect on his changes of careers."I can honestly say training is a labour of love - it has to be when you are working 16 hour days, seven days a week," he said."Racing is all-consuming - it is not a job, it is a way of life, and when it is in your blood, it is probably there forever."I do the long hours because I do my own office work and communications with owners and media but I know I have to slow down at some stage."There are not many trainers over the years who take regular holidays."We all seem to have this opinion or fantasy that if I go away, everything will fall down around me, or there is a promising two-year-old or an up-and-coming three-year-old who I can't leave. There is always an excuse."Heathcote admitted he fell into that trap for the first 10 years of his training career, as he worked hard to establish his business.Then one day, he noticed his two children, Nicholas and Charmaine, were growing up - fast."I've got a 17-year-old and 15-year-old and one day I turned around and thought to myself, 'who are they'. It is bloody scary," he said."So for the last three years, I have taken my family on a holiday and it is the best thing I can do. You get away, re-charge the 'batteries', clear the mind and come back and go at it again. “I have great staff which allow that to happen”!"It is all about balance. So, after the winter carnival finishes here in Brisbane next month, I'm taking my family overseas."So, where is Heathcote's holiday destination of choice?"We are off to Europe," he said. "We are going to all my favourite places, Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris, Switzerland, London ... "
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