In 2013 at Hollywood Park, Drayden Van Dyke could often be found in the jockey's room riding the Equicizer. He liked to practice on the machine in the dark, so he could focus on the feel of the ride instead of visual cues.
One day, Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith walked in to the dark room.
“He was like, 'What the heck are you doing?'” Van Dyke recalled. “I explained it, and then he showed me how to take the rubber bands off of the stirrups to make it harder. From there, I guess maybe I impressed him, and he kind of took me under his wing and we've been friends ever since.”
Today, Smith and Van Dyke share the same agent, Brad Pegram, and each took part in the brilliant but brief career of Justify. Van Dyke rode the colt to his maiden victory, and Smith rode him through the Triple Crown.
Last weekend at Del Mar, 23-year-old Van Dyke won the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap on Catalina Cruiser on Saturday, and the G2 Eddie Read Stakes on longshot Catapult on Sunday. This year, Van Dyke has won a total of 73 races so far, earning just shy of $5 million. He goes into Friday's card as the leading jockey at the Del Mar meet, winning with eight of his first 25 mounts.
For a “small town” kid born in Louisville but raised in Hot Springs, Ark., working with these two Hall of Famers is a dream come true. Van Dyke's parents were separated: his father, Seth Van Dyke, was a jockey who rode just over 200 races, but the man known as “Squirt” mostly worked as an exercise rider in Kentucky and Florida. His mother raised him in Arkansas, but starting at about 8 years old, the young man wanted to spend summers on the track with his father.
“At first, I'd just sleep in the tack room because I was too young to keep my eyes open,” said Van Dyke. “But eventually Jimmy Baker gave me my first job hotwalking, and I started riding the pony a little bit. Then Tom Proctor saw I was wanting to learn how to ride, and he scooped me up from Jimmy after I graduated high school.”
Proctor sent Van Dyke to Glen Hill Farm in Ocala, where he learned to break babies “from the ground up.” He spent six months at that farm, then Proctor took him to the West Coast, where he galloped on the track for about a year.
“He made me work hard,” the soft-spoken Van Dyke said. “I've always been disciplined, but he showed me that it's not just the hard work that the jockey puts in, it's also the work everyone else is doing. Now, I just get to show up and ride them and go home, but I know what all goes into it.”
Van Dyke's first winner was for Proctor and Glen Hill Farm on a horse named Money Clip. The same connections gave him his first graded stakes win, with Sistas Stroll in the Pucker Up Stakes at Arlington near Chicago.
In August 2014, tragedy struck when Proctor called the jockey to tell him that his father had taken his own life. The senior Van Dyke had struggled with alcoholism, and the call shook the young man hard.
“He was a good-hearted person,” said Van Dyke. “It made me appreciate the time I have with people I care about.”
The shocking news propelled Van Dyke to ride even harder, and he would be crowned the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice of 2014. The jockey continued to compile earnings of over $4 million each season, and found himself riding better and better horses.
His relationship with Smith continued to grow as well, and the two became very close. They both spend a significant amount of time working out, constantly improving their bodies, and each is a dedicated movie fanatic. In addition, both Van Dyke and Smith enjoy fashion, especially in tennis shoes.
“I'm lucky to be able to afford some of them now,” laughed Van Dyke.
In January of 2017, however, disaster struck again when a nasty fall at Santa Anita left Van Dyke with a compound fracture in his right arm. It took six months of rehab before he could return to the saddle, but it was then that he caught the eye of trainer Bob Baffert, and started breezing horses for the Hall of Famer in the mornings.
“I was kind of intimidated by him, honestly,” Van Dyke said. “He likes to mess around with people a lot, but once I got through the first week, I gained a lot of confidence that I was doing a good job.”
Baffert started to use Van Dyke in the afternoons as well, and the pair combined to win the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes with Mubtaahij in late 2017. This year, Van Dyke had the opportunity to win Justify's first race, and worked the colt through the majority of his time in Southern California.
“He has a walkie talkie on you every time you're breezing a horse,” Van Dyke explained. “He'll tell you exactly what he wants you to do, slow down, pick it up, or keep it the same. If he doesn't say anything, you're doing it perfect.”
Poised to have one of the best years of his career, Van Dyke is showing no signs of slowing down. He is happy to ride morning after morning for any trainer who needs him, and takes each victory in stride, never allowing himself to be cocky. He's exactly where he wants to be.
“Where I come from, everyone dreams of going to California,” said Van Dyke with a laugh. “So I guess I'm living the dream.”
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