By Ray Thomas Sydney Daily Telegraph.Thursday, 17 December 2009
WHEN most blokes suffer a midlife crisis they might go out and buy a flashy sports car or a boat.But not Robert Heathcote - he applied for a licence to train racehorses. For a man who used to be a European tour guide, worked in ski resorts and dabbled in the arts, this wasn't just a change of jobs, it was more like a seismic shift in careers.Heathcote, 50, admits he had "absolutely no background" in training when he started. But it hasn't stopped him from making a success of training.He won his first Brisbane trainers' premiership last season, is leading the title race again this season and comes to Sydney tomorrow with classy Our Lukas primed for the Group Two $150,000 Villiers Stakes (1600m) at Royal Randwick. However, he is the first to admit learning to train racehorses hasn't been easy."I'm the type of bloke who will have a go at anything, but as a trainer I've made a s ... load of mistakes along the way," Heathcote said."But you know, I like to say I've never made too many of the same mistakes twice. I've asked a lot of questions, still do, and I read a lot and its never possible to know it all in this business."I reckon I've got about 12 encyclopaedias at home from different sources on how to feed horses, how to condition them, how to train them - everything you need to know and of course a whole lot of common sense."So, does he regret swapping a life travelling the world for the onerous, time-consuming job training racehorses?"I have regrets when the alarm clock goes off at 3am every morning," he admitted. "It might be an old cliche, but there has never a truer word been spoken - this profession has to be a labour of love. It's the only way it can work. Anyone who gets up at 3am six days a week and 5am on a Sunday has to love what they do."I find I run on adrenalin a lot of the time but it helps when you have good horses."When you have a nice horse and a few promising juveniles, their potential helps you get out of bed and get going every day."Heathcote's background is about as diverse as it comes for a now-prominent racing identity. He is fond of telling the story of how he went overseas when he was 19 and spent his first night in Europe sleeping on a rubber mat. He was to stay overseas for nearly two decades.Heathcote soon landed a job at a Austrian ski resort, later going to England where became a European tour guide with Contiki Tours initially."It was a tough job, mate, but someone had to do it," Heathcote laughed."I then worked for industry heavyweights (travel companies) Trafalgar and Insight. It was something I enjoyed and I did that until 1992."After that, I did a year travelling the world with my brother Wayne in his primitive art profession, then came back home to Australia to start a family."Heathcote's brother, Wayne, is an international art dealer and racehorse owner. He is best known for sending English stayer Quick Ransom Down Under to run in the Melbourne Cup, finishing fourth in 1995 behind Doriemus."With my brother, I went to racetracks all over England from Newbury to York to Newmarket and Ascot and that's when I got my passion for racing," he added.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 to start off."Wayne had horses up and down the eastern seaboard so I said we should do things differently, send the good ones south and leave the others in Brisbane," Heathcote said."But after six months, I thought I would like to have a go at this, I should have a go at training. I managed to win a race with my second starter in town worth $75 grand." Heathcote's star has continued to rise since, culminating in his breakthrough premiership win last season."After winning the premiership last season, we have got off to a flying start this season and we are now currently about six in front," he said."In the last six or eight weeks, I think we have trained a winner at most city meetings. Its keeps a good buzz around the stables."The staff get a spring in their step when you are winning and have a bit of success at the races, then you go back to the stable and break open a couple of cartons. Racing is hard work but it should be fun, too."One of Heathcote's real talents is his ability to identify the capabilities of a good horse early on and then help that horse realise its potential. His communication skills are also excellent, "What I have found in this job is that training good horses is a damn side easier than training slow ones but its vital to keep everyone well informed," he said."Our Lukas came to us as a tried horse from Victoria and we've taken him from a class three galloper to a stakes winner - and hopefully a Group Two winner. He's a horse that has responded to how I train - and maybe a bit of Queensland sun on his back helps, too."Our Lukas won the Ipswich Cup in June and showed he was back to his best when he won the Brisbane Handicap last month.He then ran 11th in the Recognition Stakes last start, but Heathcote warned punters to dismiss that failure."Forget he went around the other day," Heathcote said. "His saddle rolled early on in the race. He's a proven 2000m horse and I've always been told that's what you need in these big Randwick 1600m races."I also noticed last year in the Villiers the first three or four in running fought out the finish and Our Lukas is an on-speed horse. The Villiers is certainly worth having a crack at."Heathcote is hopeful of finally breaking through for his first interstate win with Our Lukas tomorrow."I took Funtantes down to Sydney in the spring and she ran second to Stryker in the Heritage Stakes," he said. "I've also had a second in a Summer Cup, so we haven't been too far away. We are still a maiden in Sydney, but maybe it is our turn with Our Lukas."
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