It was the type of injury that can derail a jockey’s career. A nasty spill in the last quarter-mile of a race at Santa Anita Park in January 2017 left Drayden Van Dyke with two broken bones, including a compound fracture, in his right arm. But after emergency surgery followed by six months of healing and rehab, the 2014 Eclipse Award winner for outstanding apprentice jockey came back ready for the spotlight. And with an outside chance of racing in this year’s Kentucky Derby on May 5, Van Dyke’s resilience in the face of serious injury revealed the depth of his commitment to his sport — and the heights to which he might scale.
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“I came back with a vengeance, I guess,” the soft-spoken 23-year-old tells me. “I was more hungry than ever and got lucky to land on some horses and win some pretty decent races right off the bat.”
Those races include Van Dyke’s first million-dollar win, captured in September riding It Tiz Well in the Grade 1 Cotillion at Parx Racing in Pennsylvania. And while recovering from the accident (after which the horse he’d been riding was euthanized) was a major hurdle, it’s nothing compared to what the young jockey had already overcome.
Drayden couldn’t hold [a horse] properly when he got here. Nine months later, he was the best rider we had.
Craig Bernick, president of Glen Hill Farm, a thoroughbred breeding and racing operation
With more than $ 2 million earned to date in 2018 and career earnings exceeding $ 23 million, Van Dyke has worked alongside some of the biggest names in horse racing, including trainer Bob Baffert and legendary jockeys Gary Stevens and Mike Smith. Impressive company considering the young jockey’s humble beginnings.
“I didn’t come from much,” he says of his Arkansas upbringing. “Just a hardworking, humble kid. So everything I have now I appreciate and I’m grateful for. Just working hard every day to be the best jockey I can be.”
Van Dyke developed an interest in horses during summers he spent with his father in Louisville, Kentucky — home of the Derby’s Churchill Downs racetrack. A former jockey, Seth Van Dyke was the first to introduce his son to riding, and in 2011 young Drayden met renowned trainer Tom Proctor, who quickly took him on. Seeing promise in the high schooler, Proctor sent him to Glen Hill Farm, a thoroughbred breeding and racing operation based in Ocala, Florida, where he started out breaking in the younger horses.
“He kind of showed up and just wanted to be a professional,” recalls Glen Hill Farm president Craig Bernick. “Very confident without being cocky. He just really paid attention and took care of what he did.” Paying attention paid off. “He couldn’t gallop a horse, he couldn’t hold one properly when he got here,” says Bernick. “Nine months later, he was the best rider we had.”
It wasn’t long after arriving at Glen Hill that Van Dyke was taken under the wing of Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. Living in Smith’s home as a teenager and learning from one of the sport’s best, Van Dyke appeared to be on the fast track to racing greatness, winning his first race in November 2013. Then Proctor called Van Dyke one August day in 2014 with news that would shatter his world.
Holding back tears, Proctor told the 19-year-old that his father, who had struggled for years with alcoholism, had taken his own life.
“It totally changed my life from the moment I got the phone call,” remembers Van Dyke. “It made me a stronger person, and it made me enjoy my time around other people. People aren’t here forever, and the ones that you love, it will make you feel better in the long run if you hug them or tell them you love them one extra time.”
Inspired by his father’s memory, Van Dyke has been training harder, winning more — with his sights set ever higher. His place in next month’s Kentucky Derby has not yet been secured, with horses still competing for spots through the points system tracked at the series of races known as the Road to the Kentucky Derby. But Van Dyke has raced a number of horses, including Justify and Solomini, that could qualify for the Derby.
And should this year not be his moment to race at Churchill Downs, there are many in the sport who consider Van Dyke’s eventual entry into Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup competition as inevitable.
“Drayden can be a star. Drayden can be one of the very best riders in the country. No doubt about it,” says Mac McBride, director of media for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and a fixture in California’s horse racing community. Pointing out that Van Dyke has a demeanor reminiscent of “one of the greatest riders ever to come down the pike,” McBride adds: “Bill Shoemaker never got real high when he won a race. He never got real low when he lost a race. He always stayed steady, and Drayden seems to have that capacity also.”
A lofty comparison for any rider, let alone a 23-year-old who spent half of last year healing his broken bones. But if Van Dyke does fulfill his promise someday, he’ll be thinking about his father, the man who first introduced him to the sport.
“He’s on my mind all the time ever since he’s been gone,” says Van Dyke. “I hope I can be half the person he was one day. Truly a good-hearted person. A hard worker.”