WILL Hayes has been up much longer than you have today. His alarm blasted at 3.15 am this morning, just like it has almost every day since he was delisted by the Western Bulldogs last October. He started trackwork at Flemington Racecourse at 4am, where he helps run the operation for the famous Hayes family racing empire, Lindsay Park.
But Hayes won't be out there tomorrow. His alarm will be later. Life has changed course. Again.
Seven months after he wasn't offered another contract at the Whitten Oval following 11 games across three seasons, Hayes is back in the AFL after Carlton used pick No.22 – the final live pick – in Wednesday night's NAB AFL Mid-Season Rookie Draft to select him.
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The son of legendary horse trainer David Hayes returned to the family business when his time finished in Footscray last year, working just down the road at the Flemington base for his older brother Ben and twin brother JD. But he didn't close the door on football.
The 26-year-old signed with Carlton's VFL program over the summer after contemplating his future and trained with Michael Voss' squad at different times over the pre-season, hoping it would somehow keep the dream alive.
Now the dream is alive after Carlton list manager Nick Austin rewarded Hayes for his brilliant start to the season, where the midfielder has averaged 33 disposals and a goal a game under coach Daniel O'Keefe's watch at Ikon Park. He will do a handover at the racecourse today and start his new life as a Blue.
"I can't believe it; lightning has struck twice. I'm in shock," Hayes told AFL.com.au after the draft.
"I knew there was a little bit of interest. Carlton have been absolutely amazing to me and had been very transparent with their communication. They were very straightforward and said: if you're there when we want to take you and the picks line up, we'll take you.
"I got a call from Nick Austin probably 15 minutes before pick 22 actually came up and I was in complete disbelief, I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it."
Hayes has always been forced to do things the hard way when it comes to his football. He wasn't drafted until he was 23 after knocking the door down in the VFL with Footscray. Even then, he was taken with the final pick in the 2018 NAB AFL Draft – 77 picks after Carlton took Sam Walsh with the No.1 selection.
Unlike most players who were drafted on Wednesday night, Hayes didn't start playing football until he was 11. He spent the first decade of his life living in a corner of the iconic Sha Tin racecourse while his old man trained horses in Hong Kong, playing soccer and rugby before the family returned to Victoria.
Speak to anyone inside the Western Bulldogs and they all gush about Hayes. It was a difficult decision to cut him, but the club is stacked with one of the deepest and best midfields in the competition, so you could understand why. Plenty were pumped to see Carlton pick him last night.
"I definitely thought it was over. It's never easy. It's probably the hardest meeting you have in footy and the most disappointing, but I loved every second of my time at the Dogs," he said.
"I was part of the VFL program for a long time as well before I got picked up. I've got nothing but good memories from my time at that club.
"What I learned put me in good stead, taught me a lot about resilience and persistence and I met a lot of good people along the journey. I wouldn't change anything at all. I'm just glad that I've got a second opportunity now at another great club in Carlton."
Hayes signed up with Carlton's VFL program hoping to land a second chance, while juggling life back in the all-consuming world of horse training. It has meant long, hard days and minimal sleep for the best part of seven months.
"I've spent the last six or seven months chasing a little bit of sleep. Racing is not the easiest industry in the world. It's got very tough, resilient people in it. We work hard and they are long days – long, honest days – but it is all worth it if you find a fast horse," he said.
"There have been pretty much no days off, really. After trackwork in the morning, if I don't have to go to the races, I've been able to get my own training in during the day. If I've got racing, you can work up to 16 hours in a day before you go to the gym or for a run, so there's been a lot of twilight sessions and night-time sessions."
JD and Ben Hayes became the third generation to run Lindsay Park when they took over the training reins from David 12 months ago, continuing a 75-year family business that started with their grandfather Colin, who is one of only three trainers to hold legend status in the Australian Racing Hall of Fame.
They knew there was a possibility that they would lose Will back into the AFL, but were told it was only an outside chance.
"I said to them I thought I was 100 to 1, but be careful because roughies do get up," he said.
"We had it in the back of our minds that it might happen, but for it to actually materialise is something else."
Carlton also signed former first-round pick Sam Durdin last night, filling a clear hole in defence following injuries to key defenders Jacob Weitering, Mitch McGovern, Oscar McDonald, Caleb Marchbank and the departure of Liam Jones. But don't be surprised if Hayes forces his way into Carlton's 22 as they gallop towards September.
"Definitely. That's the plan. I'll be putting my best foot forward. If I get rewarded with an AFL game, I'll take it with both hands," he said.
Hayes has a deal at Carlton for the rest of this season, but don't bet on him being available for trackwork again in 2023. He will make every post a winner at Ikon Park.