Saturday, February 25, 2012

Sellers Back to Riding ‘As Good As I’ve Ever Ridden’

NEW ORLEANS (Wednesday, February 22, 2012) – “Shane Sellers,” jockey agent Fred Aime remarked on a quiet morning at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, “has made more comebacks than Sugar Ray Robinson.”

Given the tendency of jockey agents to pontificate upon the merits of their riders while sometimes demonstrating disregard for actual facts in the matter, we leave it up to the reader to discern whether Mr. Aime’s quotation may include slight exaggeration. This we know, however, regarding the matter of coming back to racing successfully – one need only look at the rider’s record of the past three years to ascertain that his return has been quite the achievement.

You know him first from the bush tracks of Louisiana, then from more than 4,300 trips to the winner’s circle at the nation’s biggest racetracks in events that included the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (Countess Diana, 1997) and Breeders’ Cup Turf (Buck’s Boy, 1998), as well as the Jockey Club Gold Cup (Skip Away, 1996) and the Florida Derby (Cape Town in 1998 and Vicar in 1999). At Fair Grounds he’s captured many top stakes races including the Louisiana Derby on Comic Strip in 1998, and, most recently, the Louisiana Handicap with Thiskyhasnolimit on Jan. 21.

There was a serious knee injury in late 2000 that kept him on the sidelines for a year and half, and during that time he became an outspoken critic regarding a lack of health insurance provided to jockeys. The majority of tracks now carry on-track accident insurance up to $1 million for riders.

After returning to riding in 2002 and until he stepped away from the game in late December of 2004, Sellers was on the frontlines of the sport advocating for jockey welfare while teaming with horses like multiple graded stakes winners The Cliff’s Edge and Bwana Charlie, and Fair Grounds’ 2003 Lecomte Stakes winner Saintly Look. Along with Jerry Bailey, John Velazquez, Gary Stevens, and Jose Santos, he battled for the right to wear advertising in the 2004 Kentucky Derby. That same year he was a major part of the HBO documentary film Jockey, which told the story of challenges riders faced, including racing injuries and the effects of constant crash dieting to maintain racing weight. In 2005 Sellers also appeared on a CNN special with Paula Zahn to speak out about serious health problems many jockeys experience as a result of difficult weight limits. But the controversial issues and his outspoken approach took their toll.

“I wasn’t sour on the game, I was just so tired of fighting,” Sellers recalled. “I was burnt out, my personal life wasn’t good, everything wasn’t good. I’d had enough and I had to get away. I still don’t know how standing up for something so right could go so wrong, but it’s over, it’s in the past now.”

He doesn’t like to talk about those days much anymore, but the positive outcome of the negative experience was his decision to reach out for help and turn his life around. During his time away from the sport from 2005 until 2009, Sellers entered a rehab facility for drug and alcohol programs and sought therapy for mental issues.

“I nearly lost my mind,” he said. “I probably did, I don’t know. I went through some horrible times and sometimes you have to get to that point in life and you either stay down there or pick yourself back up. Usually when you pick yourself up you get your life back with time and a little bit of knowledge about yourself and how to handle situations. I’m enjoying the game again and I love what I do for a living. I put everything in the past behind me and went back to square one and told myself, ‘There’s one way you got to where you were before you quit, and that was through ability. Now go back and show people that you want to compete.’”

Trainer Al Stall Jr. said his old relationship with Sellers goes back to the days when the jockey rode for Stall’s old mentor, Frank Brothers – the same Frank Brothers who used to tell Sellers, “Just shut your mouth and ride.”

“We go back a long way, and the talent’s always been there,” Stall remarked. “He came back with the right attitude and the right outlook. It was tough and he had to work on his weight and mend some fences, but his talent gets him through as much as anything and he’s really got himself together now.”

The 45-year-old jockey was seventh in the standings at Fair Grounds going into Friday’s card for the meet that started Nov. 24. From 240 mounts he had a 41-26-36 record, with $1,192,233 in purse earnings and a 17% win rate and 43% in-the-money percentage. That’s a big jump from last year where he finished 12th in the colony with 255 mounts for the entire meet and a 23-20-31 standing, purse earnings of $743,742, and much smaller percentages – 9% win rate and 29% in-the-money.

Although Stall and Fair Grounds leading trainer Steve Asmussen have been big supporters this season, the jockey is riding for a variety of conditioners. He’s named on 12 different runners for eight different horsemen on the Friday and Saturday cards at Fair Grounds.

“He understands how to communicate with a horse and, even more important, how to let that horse communicate with him,” remarked trainer Danny Pish. “I was a fan of his work the first go-around. The best riders not only ride in a strategic fashion, but ride with their hearts before they ride with their heads. You can have those smarts and be ready to use them, but sometimes you have to just go with your gut and follow what the horse is telling you. He came back because he loves the horses and because he missed it, and the horses can tell when a rider is into it like that. They always seem to respond (to him).”

Among the many live mounts Sellers has this weekend are Colonel Power Stakes entrant Cactus Son for Mike Burgess and two Asmussen trainees – Mineshaft Handicap contender Thiskyhasnolimit and Zayat Stables’ Lecomte Stakes runner-up Z Dager, who will start in the Risen Star Stakes on Saturday’s Louisiana Derby Preview Day Presented by Lamarque Ford. The latter turned in a lights-out effort in the Jan. 21 Lecomte, just missing by a head after rallying strongly from off the pace.

“Honestly, up the backside, I didn’t know if he could last, making that move,” Sellers remarked. “I’d kind of had to put him in the game a bit going into the turn to hold my position. But when we got to the eighth pole he gave me even more; I thought I had it won. He’s been training well since then and hopefully he’ll move forward off the last race. If he does, we’ll be sitting in a good spot.”

Sellers said he still allows himself to dream of riding a Kentucky Derby winner. It’s a race he competed in 13 consecutive times from 1990-2004, usually on top contenders – Skip Away, Pulpit, Vicar, Graeme Hall and The Cliff’s Edge among them – with his best finish a third in 1993 on Wild Gale.

“If I didn’t come back and go all-out, I wouldn’t have come back at all,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity, but I’d love to ride in the Derby again. I think I’m riding as good as I’ve ever ridden right now. I rode those kind of races for a very long time and had some very good opportunities in them; I rode some very, very good horses. I’d hate to say I took it for granted, but maybe I did.”

Longtime agent Aime, 61, represented Sellers when he was riding The Cliff’s Edge for Hall of Famer Nick Zito. He picked up the jockey’s book again last fall when he came to Kentucky to ride the Keeneland meet. The agent said he liked what he saw when he watched Sellers win seven races at the highly-competitive Lexington oval.

“We’ve always known the ability’s there, it’s just getting the other things in order,” Aime explained. “He’s a top-quality rider and I’ve had the good fortune of working for some good riders over the years – Pat Day, Randy Romero, Kent Desormeaux, Corey Nakatani, Eddie Delahoussaye, Mark Guidry… I’d put him near the top of the list. Right now he seems to be in a very good place; since I’ve known Shane, this is the best his attitude has been by far. It’s been a building process and a lot of bridge-mending for him, and it’s something he’s going to have to prove on a daily basis. I told him, ‘When people see you riding horses every morning and winning races in the afternoon, they’re going to want you again.’

“I put myself in a predicament that looked like I might not be able to get myself out of,” Sellers remarked. “When I came back in 2009 I rode my first race at Evangeline Downs and it was a very humbling experience. But this is a forgiving game; you just have to go back and do the right thing and I’ve done that and worked hard. I still think I can compete at this level and I just feel very fortunate and grateful for the opportunities. Every part of my life is good – personally, spiritually, professionally – and now it’s up to me to take advantage of it. I have no room for error.

“All I ever knew was riding and that’s all I wanted to do,” he said. “I’m sure I could have done something else for a living, but this is in my blood.”

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