The unbelievable thrill of a first Group 1 ride

Michael Hellyer & Baccarat Baby
Michael Hellyer & Baccarat Baby
The recent HRO article on the loyalty trainer David Vandyke and stable connections showed in retaining regular jockey Michael Hellyer, who had never ridden in a Group 1 race before, for Baccarat Baby’s mission in the Group 1 Flight Stakes at Randwick last Saturday elicited an enormous, positive response from HRO readers. Some wanted to know more. How did Vandyke and Hellyer get together in the first place? When did Hellyer know he officially had secured his first Group 1 ride? HRO’s Graham Potter asked Michael Hellyer to complete the back-story.
“It all started with Benny Vassallo who I used to ride with when I first started out. He used to be a jockey in Sydney and we had a good relationship down there. We were good mates.

“Benny stopped race riding and I moved up here. Benny got into buying horses for clients and he has got horses everywhere now. He had Kylie’s Fame and he asked David to put me on so I got the call from David Vandyke asking if I could ride Kylie’s Fame at Ipswich.

“I rode her. She went very well for me. Didn’t win but I rode her again the next start in town on a Saturday. They put me back on her and she won at 20-1 … and that’s how our relationship started. Basically, it was pretty much Benny Vassallo who set us up.

“My relationship with David’s stable expanded from there. I did ride work for David in the early days. Sometimes he was a bit light with riders so I would go up and help. I still go up there (to the Sunshine Coast) and do trials and stuff but not so much trackwork these days … but if ever David asks if I can come and gallop one I’m there first thing. One hundred percent.

“A very important thing is that David and I have a very good understanding. If there is a horse that I have been riding and I don’t get to ride it next start I don’t take it to heart. There is no problem … and vice versa. If he has one in and I am not available for whatever reason … again, there is no problem.

“We have that complete understanding whichever way it works out and that is why we have such a good relationship is because none of us ever throw our toys out of the cot. We understand where each of us is coming from, that this is business and we have just got to get on with the job.

“Yeah, then Baccarat Baby came along. I think I trialled her or jumped her out before she had her first start and she gave us a good look there. Robbie Fradd rode her in her first start behind a couple of good ones.

“Then, when David brought her back in, the owner Peter Harris was a big supporter of mine and he said to David he’d like me to ride her.

“Baccarat Baby has just come such a long way since then. This whole prep we’ve tried to teach her to settle. David has always had that opinion that, once she settles, she’ll get further … and he was right. She did.

“We set a deliberate learning path for her. For example, in her run at the Sunshine Coast, in a small field carrying 59kg, if I was on an older horse with a lot of experience I probably would have led that day … but we knew if we sent her forward and let her roll we would have been back to square one in terms of teaching her to settle. So, David has been following a particular planned strategy all the way through.

“Once she gets a bit of cover now … or a half to three quarters of a horse … she tucks her head down. She relaxes. That is what we have taught her and she has been a good learner so we have been able to ride her quiet.

“You can see that in the way we rode her the other day. I rode her the same way in Sydney and, once she had got in behind those other horses, she relaxed … and what she taught me the other day is that she will run further.

“We were a bit unfortunate twice in the home straight in the Flight Stakes in terms of not getting clear running. Take nothing away from the effort. It was a huge performance to only be beaten by 0.80 of a length. In a better world, on an ideal day, that margin would probably have been about 0.30 of a length. Maybe even closer … who knows?

“Obviously for breeding purposes it would have been great if Baccarat Baby had run a place, but there are bigger and better things to come for her. She’ll mature a lot from this prep. We can’t complain. She’s won five out of six and only been beaten 0.80 of a length in a Group 1.

“For myself and David and the owners … we’ve got a little filly here who is going to come back strong, particularly in the autumn and winter.

“So, my first Group 1 ride is behind me now and I’m very grateful to everybody involved for giving me that opportunity.

“David had mentioned to me, almost from day one, that if all goes well he wanted to look at the Flight Stakes with Baccarat Baby.

"So, I knew early in the piece where the filly might be heading but it wasn’t until about a week before I rode her in her last Brisbane start that David said to me that if she wins the owners would like me to go down to Sydney to ride her. But she had to win quite well … and she did.

“The race aside, my first Group 1 experience was unbelievable. Ever since the day I started race riding you watch the big races and, my wife will tell you, I have always said I would just love to ride in a Group 1. Just to have that moment.

“I came close eighteen months ago I got an offer to ride in a Group 1 at Rosehill but that fell through the morning of acceptances unfortunately.

“Anyway, my time came and I think I took full advantage of it.

“Being in the room with those jockeys was memorable but it was really when you walk out into that enclosure that you realise this is the big time. When you walk under the tunnel towards the enclosure at Randwick and its just a blur of high-profile trainers and jockeys and the media and the crowd … you realise you are at headquarters, it’s a Group 1 and it doesn’t get any bigger than this.

“Sometimes the word is overused … but it really is exciting and you are feel … ah, this is amazing.

“It was everything I thought it would be and obviously my experience was helped by the fact that I didn’t feel any pressure because David and the owners never put any pressure on me. The beauty of it was she was a horse I knew well, we had a plan and we just went with it. It was an unbelievable thrill.

“Everybody was happy afterwards. The Harris’s bred the horse so the run and occasion meant that much more to them than buying a horse that had gone through the sales ring. They were rapt. David was ecstatic and as for me … well I couldn’t have asked for anything more!

“Like I said, it was an unbelievable thrill.”