Daniel Bast pauses mid-sentence, momentarily moved by the journey that brought him from Mumbai to the mecca of Canadian horse racing.

High above the three courses – E.P. Taylor turf, inner turf and all-weather – that dot the Woodbine Racetrack landscape, the 42-year-old Bast takes in the panoramic view of Canada’s Showplace of Racing.

“I never thought that my life would turn out as it has… I am grateful for where I am.”

It has been a long, occasionally tumultuous path to the sixth floor at Woodbine.

Born in Mumbai, India, Bast spent part of his childhood living with his grandparents, out of necessity rather than choice.

He was an avid sportsman but life in the classroom proved to be a challenge for Bast.

“My studies were going downhill,” he recalled.

He was at ease in the sporting arena but life in the classroom proved to be a challenge for Bast and often took a back seat to sports.

“When I was around 14, I wasn’t doing well in school. I was always a sports fan and still am. I was the first person on the soccer pitch. If we were playing soccer at five o’clock, I was dressed and on the pitch by two. There was always an excitement that sports gave me.”

The diminutive teenager gave away size and strength to his opponents, but his competitive spirit allowed him to stay one step ahead of the competition.

A New Opportunity

When a friend’s father suggested Bast might want to consider a career as a jockey, the idea appealed to him – with one caveat.

“No studies!”

A trip to the races in Mumbai solidified Bast’s interest in race riding.

“We went to the races and stood close to the track. I remember watching all the horses going by so fast and hearing all the people in the crowd cheering. After that day, I said, ‘Let’s give this a try.’”

An opening came up for a 10-day riding course.

It was there where Bast learned the basics of riding – jogging, trotting, cantering – and earned his certificate after completing the course.

Emboldened by the experience, he turned his attention to the local jockey school.

“There was an opening in May of 1997, where a jockey school was taking in five apprentices. There were 350 applicants, and I was one of the five selected. I had no horse racing background, no one in my family did.

“Getting into the school was a big blessing. A lot of the people who applied had some connection to racing, but the advantage I had was that I spoke English.”

Taught by an old-school type, who had little tolerance for any form of disobedience, Bast excelled in his two years there.

He learned valuable lessons beyond just riding.

“You find out how to go about everyday life and how to be independent. It was very rigorous, those two years, but I finally felt I had found out who I was and what I wanted to be.”

There was one aspect of racing he regretted not learning about.

“I was a rider, but not a horseman. I wanted to understand the horses.”

That time would come, but not for a few years. For now, the focus would be establishing himself as a capable rider.

“When I came out of the jocks’ school in May 1999, I was given a trainer to work for. The racing club in Mumbai provides a trainer for each rider coming out of the school. The club watches you for the last six months of your schooling and then they decide who you will work for.

“The trainer I worked for had a small outfit, but I did learn a lot from him. In my first year, I was asked to represent India in the Invitational Apprentice Jockey’s Challenge, an international competition in Macau, which was in 2000. It was a big eye-opener for me because I had never been outside of India.

“It was quite exciting, but I still felt lost. I didn’t have an agent, so there was no guidance. If you have any questions, you find a way to answer them yourself. I rode in two races there and headed back to India.”

Changing Course

Bast had some success at his home racetrack, finishing runner-up as leading apprentice in consecutive years. After two years, he realized the competition for mounts likely meant fewer opportunities to ride.

The next crop of riders from the jockey school he attended would soon make their way to the racetrack.

In his third year, Bast was on retainer for a trainer whose husband was one of the steward members of the racing club.

Working for a small stable – the barn had between 16 to 20 horses – didn’t yield the results Bast had hoped for.

His business had all but dried up.

“I wasn’t winning very much, and I knew I had to make a change. It is that feeling of hitting rock bottom – you don’t know where you are going to go, what the future will be, and what life will look like. I was worried.”

Bast sought out opportunities elsewhere.

Through connections in Mumbai, he heard about the role of an exercise rider in Newmarket, England.

The offer was too tempting to refuse.

Bast’s time in England didn’t start in grand fashion.

On occasion, he found himself on the receiving end of biting racist remarks.

“It was tough because I was one of the first Indian people to be an exercise rider. There was some racism, but you pay no mind to those people.”

In time, Bast made what would be lifelong friendships.

Spending time with veteran exercise riders in the yard broadened his knowledge of the horse racing industry, if not the animal.

Bast’s life away from the training tracks and racetracks was gratifying.

Trying to get his boot in the stirrups on race days was frustrating.

“Eventually, I felt I was getting stagnant. I still wanted to race-ride, but over there it is tough. I was privileged to travel to racetracks around England and Scotland, so it was a nice experience overall. But I was not content.”

A conversation with a friend in India would lead to a flight to Dubai.

Bast found work with an American trainer, Jeff Frasier, Jr., in the United Arab Emirates.

“I ended up living about 35 minutes away from [UAE’s capital city] Abu Dhabi. It was also a wonderful experience. I won three races there, which was a big highlight in my career.”

Canada Calling

After two years of working for Frasier, another opportunity arose for Bast, which would take him over 11,000 kilometres (6,835 miles) from the United Arab Emirates.

Little did Bast know it would be the end of his nomadic racing life.

In 2006, Eric Coatrieux was training for Chiefswood Stable at their farm in Alliston [Ontario]. His brother, Xavier, happened to be the farrier for the same stable as Bast in the United Arab Emirates.

“Eric was looking for riders at Chiefswood. Xavier was coming to Canada, and he asked me and a friend of mine if we would like to come over too. We thought we would check it out and if it wasn’t for us, we could come back to the United Arab Emirates.

“I remember the day I left, I told Jeff that I would come back and work for him for free because he was such a nice man. He looked at me and said, ‘Once you get to Canada and see the laws and rights you have as an individual, you will stay there.’”

Bast would discover just how prophetic those words were not long after he arrived in Toronto.

Working for one of Canada’s most decorated and respected ownership and breeding outfits instilled a feeling of contentment in Bast.

“I worked horses like Ambitious Cat, Essential Edge, Seanachai, Fifth Overture, Alleged Ruler and 2004 Queen’s Plate winner Niigon – I get chills when I mention their names.

“I also ran the shedrow in Palm Meadows for Eric Coatrieux where I had the opportunity to see Barbaro – the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner – training every morning.”

Bast became a fixture on the Woodbine backstretch, an in-demand exercise rider for several barns starting in 2007.

Eyes Opened

As his reputation grew, so too did his affinity and appreciation for Thoroughbreds.

“The industry has given me so much, most importantly, a love and respect for the animal. I always thought about riding, but when I stopped, I realized the beauty of the animal. Maybe I had taken that for granted before, but not anymore.”

He holds horse people in the same regard.

“I want to give credit to the animal and horse people. It takes a lot to take care of these animals and to be dedicated to their job.

“Working with all the great men and women at Woodbine means everything to me. To see the hard work and care the hotwalkers, grooms, trainers, and everyone puts in is very inspirational. I have learned so much from them.”

Bast also learned to deal with adversity.

In 2017, a horse landed on top of him during a morning breeze on the Woodbine training track.

“I was in a wheelchair for three months. I was very depressed because I couldn’t do what I loved.”

When he recovered, Bast returned to the backstretch.

“The accident opened my eyes. I remember a couple of older horsemen told me when I got back, ‘If you are not comfortable, don’t do this anymore.’ I didn’t want to be a liability and I didn’t want to put a horse or someone else in harm’s way.”

What he did want was to be around horses.

In 2021, he became an Animal Care Assistant with Ontario Equine Hospital, just minutes away from Woodbine.

The hospital houses office space, a library/board room, an operating theatre, two drop and recovery stalls, a nuclear medicine suite, a procedures room, and a barn capable of housing seven horses.

Bast felt a connection to each horse who came to the facility and his daily schedule not only spanned assisting veterinarians during surgeries but also included providing pre- and post-surgical care.

He felt blessed to work alongside a great team and a mentor, who showed him the ropes.

It was at the hospital where Bast’s hunger to understand horses was realized.

Dealing with numerous horse breeds, some handled, some feral, is where Bast upped his game in respecting the animal for his strength and size.

He witnessed firsthand the fragility of horses irrespective of their age or size. He learned compassion and empathy for horses that were nervous during recovery, and ways to reassure them and calm them. He experienced helplessness during medically necessary euthanizations.

In service to the animals in their vulnerable conditions, Bast found a way to give back to an industry that was not just a livelihood, but a passion.

“Working there opened my eyes even more to loving the horses. They are majestic animals.”

Bast’s involvement in the horse racing industry has spanned multiple experiences, helping to shape his perspective and scope of knowledge.

But the hunger for the racetrack had never faded completely.

It had been a few years since he started to envision what a life not riding horses might look like.

Having worked on the backstretch for over a decade, Bast knew there were a variety of professions he could explore beyond animal care and patiently waited in the wings for an opportunity where he could learn more about the technical aspects of the industry.

Last year, Bast, who also ponied seven years at the Toronto oval with the late Albert Trudell, a horseman he holds in high regard and remembers fondly, left the clinic for a new role.

Every morning, in the weeks leading up to the start of Woodbine’s Thoroughbred season and throughout the campaign, he can be found on the sixth floor, stopwatch and binoculars in hand.

“I am excited to be a clocker,” he said of the contract role. “It’s opened so many doors.”

Others have taken notice of his contributions.

“He is very eager, he pays very close attention to detail, and to what the senior clockers tell him,” said Ernie Perri, Woodbine’s Head Clocker and Oddsmaker. “He wants to learn and puts in the time. He is also very knowledgeable from his experience galloping.”

The view from the windows overlooking the racetracks, rain or shine, always brings out a smile in Bast.

His life, personally and professionally, is in a good place.

The man who once bristled at the very thought of studies has become a student of the horse racing game.

“I like pedigrees from Europe and North America – I enjoy studying them and the racing form. I also love watching races from different regions and watching replays.”

Once again, Bast pauses momentarily, perhaps recollecting the long and winding journey that brought him to Canada and Woodbine.

His greatest satisfaction is knowing his time in racing has many more furlongs to go.

“There was a time where I felt lost, not knowing what or who I would be… but I have found those answers.”