Once an up-and-coming jockey, Daniel Wheeler will be trying his hand at training again following a move to Coffs Harbour.
The Grafton product, who is the father of promising apprentice Bailey Wheeler, has spent time working with the likes of John Hawkes, John Wallace, and Matthew Dunn, and he started his first runners on his home track on Thursday, with Theregos and Clipper Ship going around for the yard.
Theregos ran a good third for connections in the 800m Maiden Plate, and Wheeler is happy to be training on course at Coffs Harbour.
“It is a great place to train,” Wheeler said.
“There is a treadmill, swimming pool, and plenty of use of Coffs Harbour beach. The place has everything, and it’s what lured me back here.
“Plus, I grew up down the road and it took me a while, but I always wanted to come back here.”
The journeyman has enjoyed a storied career, growing up next to respected trainer John Shelton, and he explained that’s what led him to becoming an apprentice jockey.
“I lived over the back fence of John Shelton’s place in Grafton, and I used to kick the ball over the fence on purpose so I could go over and check out the horses,” Wheeler laughed.
“One day he said stop jumping the fence and running into this yard unless you’re going to do the boxes and waters, and that’s how it all started.
“From there, he taught me a lot and I was 14 and a half when I rode my first horse, and I was 15 and a half when I rode my first winner.”
Wheeler was always going to be too heavy to be a lifelong professional jockey, and in hindsight, he admitted that it all felt rushed.
“I was always going to get heavy, but looking back on it all, I’m grateful. I got passed after only seven barrier trials and that would never happen in this day and age,” Wheeler said.
“I rode a fair few winners pretty quickly and I won the Northern Rivers apprentices premiership in my first year.
“I got on some really good horses for John, like Royal Phantom, Phantom’s Brother, and Brother’s Gift, and all of them won a few, and it gave me a good chance to make an early mark.”
Wheeler was a gifted apprentice, and he was soon riding in Brisbane, even wearing the legendary cerise and white silks made famous by the Ingham family.
“I only rode for two, maybe two and a half years, and because I was getting heavy, I went to Brisbane early, and I was way too young,” Wheeler said.
“I rode a few winners in town, and me and Zac Purton grew up together, and we went there at the same time but the best moment for me was when John Hawkes put me on two horses at Eagle Farm, and both were rides for the Ingham family.
“They both won, and I rode a double for them at 16 and a half; Michael Hawkes was in charge in Brisbane at the time, and I remember him telling me John was on the phone, and here I was thinking he was calling me to congratulate me on the double.
“When I spoke to him, all he said was, ‘why did you leave the fence on the first one?’, and he told me ‘never do that again’ and that was it, but it was a special moment.
“For a kid from the bush, to even have a ride in the colours; that was a thrill, and I ended up riding 20 or so for them and it was definitely the highlight of a very short career.”
Wheeler’s weight eventually caught up with him, and he spent time training before making the move to John Wallace’s yard on the Gold Coast.
“I was no superstar, but I got in quick, and got a bit of success, but I just got too heavy. I outrode my claim, but I battled all the time, and while blokes like Michael Rodd and Zac Purton could ride 49/50kg, I was struggling to make 56kg, so I finished up,” Wheeler said.
“As soon as I quit riding, I worked for John Hawkes before I went back to Grafton, and I bought a few horses and had a bit of a crack there.
“My family always trained horses, and I ended up buying a few, and took my licence out, and every horse I had won races, but this was before the prizemoney increase, and it was hard to make a living.
“Because I only trained for myself, I went and worked for John Wallace at the Gold Coast, and I rode a lot of trackwork for him, and I would have been there six or seven years, and that’s when Shoot Out came along.
“I rode him every day for two years and was travelling foreman for him when he went to Sydney and Melbourne, and he won the Randwick Guineas, AJC Derby, ran fourth in the Cox Plate, and I even strapped him for the Melbourne Cup, which was a big thrill.”
Wheeler went back to training, but he again admitted to rushing things, and he said he was simply too young to be going out on his own.
“I was way too young to train, and I made myself look like a bit of a goose,” Wheeler said.
“I was a single bloke in my 20s; I wanted to party, and I wasn’t ready to train, and I did get a few winners and held my own, but I eventually gave it up and then I went to Matt Dunn for five years and rode freelance trackwork for a while.
“I would ride a bit of work for Chris Waller when he would bring them up (to Queensland) for the carnival, and I learned so much about attention to detail and what it took for those good horses to win, and that is something I want to bring back to my training.”
At 38, Wheeler has again branched out on his own, and he believes he is in the right frame of mind, and with the industry doing well, it is now or never for the talented horseman.
“It’s a good time to be back following the prizemoney increases, and the introduction of these Highways and country-only races,” Wheeler said.
“Plus, after spending time in Newcastle when Bailey was riding for Kris Lees, we were always going back to Grafton or Coffs Harbour to train, and Coffs is a magical place to be, and now all I want to do is get 10 or a dozen in work and have our own family business.
“We have four right now, and we have had a couple come in and go out, and I’ve had a bit of support from a few local owners, and they have said they will throw us a horse in the future, and I’m hoping we can make it a good start and build up our numbers.”