Every morning for more than four decades David Vance made the same trek up Interstate I-71 to Turfway Park. Beginning in 1966, his first year as a trainer, Vance’s schedule was the same, waking up at the crack of dawn, jumping in his car, and venturing to the Florence, Ky., racetrack to tend to his stable of horses.
But Dec. 9, while making the drive for who-knows-how-many-thousandth-time, life changed in an instant.
“I was on my way to Turfway, going about 65 or 70 on a wet road, came on top of a hill, and I hydroplaned,” Vance painfully recalled. “I couldn’t straighten out, the truck flipped, and I hit a concrete wall. All I kept thinking was ‘please, no rocks come flying through this windshield and break my chest.’ ”
Vance does not remember how long he was trapped before the emergency medical service pried him from the truck and rushed him to the hospital. Pain and shock are the only two things etched in his memory from that day. The devastating one-vehicle accident resulted in a crushed C-4 vertebrae and torn ligaments in his neck. Surgery was performed at Cincinnati’s University Hospital the following day.
Although the surgery was successful, Vance was unable to walk. Aside from the vertebrae damage, he had suffered pinched nerves and bulging disks in his back. Three months later he is still confined to a wheelchair.
“I have some mobility in my left side, but none in my right from the waist down,” Vance said. “I started home therapy two-and-a-half weeks ago and they say it’s helping. But it’s not quick enough for me. I want it to happen tomorrow. I can’t walk and that’s all I know. It can’t get much worse than this.”
For nearly a half-century, Vance’s life has been all about horses. A son of a trainer, Vance followed his father around the racetrack as a youngster and in 1961, at the age of 20, began going to Oaklawn Park as his assistant. Five years later he took out his own license, beginning his training business at Latonia Race Course, which is now known as Turfway.
Vance’s training duties have taken him all over the country since then, with many of his early years spent in the Northeast. Vance won a combined five training titles at the former Keystone Park (now Philadelphia Park) and the old Garden State Park.
But much of his later success came at Oaklawn, where he once set the record for most wins in a meet, and at Churchill Downs, where he captured three training titles. Churchill was also the site of Vance’s career highlight, when in 2000 Caressing scored the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) at 47-1.
“It’s tough being away from it,” Vance said. “This is the first year since 1961 that I didn’t go to Oaklawn.”
After Vance’s injury, his stable was taken over by his daughter, Trisha, and in part by his son, Tommy. Trisha has been an assistant to her father for many years, so running the barn, which as of now includes 14 horses—all at Oaklawn—was not a huge transition.
“I’ve worked for dad since I was a little girl. I was always at the barn anyway,” Trisha said. “Me and my brother are doing most of the training now, but we’re glad to help. Dad has a long road and he’s pushing himself every day to get back. He’s very strong-willed and tough. I have no doubt he’ll be back to 100% soon.”
After the Oaklawn meet ends, Vance’s horses will ship back to Churchill. With help from his wife, Lynn, the veteran trainer will be able to make the short drive from his home in Louisville to see his horses. A new crop of 2-year-olds is expected to arrive this spring as well.
“I don’t know how much I’ll be able to help, but I’m going to try to go over there as long as I’m able to,” Vance said. “I’ll do the best I can from the wheelchair.”
Vance’s doctors are optimistic for a full recovery, which would include walking again in less than a year. And although he is only seven wins shy of 3,000 for his career, that number doesn’t mean a thing, right now.
“It’s only a number,” Vance said. “My family is making a big deal about it, but I’m not. I guess most trainers never get to that number, so in that respect, it’s a nice accomplishment.
“I’ve had a good career, but you don’t have anything without your health. My goal is to walk before the end of the year. I have to stay positive. It’s too depressing not to. There is no guarantee that I’ll ever walk again, so I have to do the best I can with what I have.”