Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Little Big Man
LOS ANGELES, March 15, 2011--The father of the little girl who might have been trampled by a horse at Santa Anita was in the hospital room of the little man who had saved her from serious injury or worse.
"How old is your little girl, about nine?" said John Shear, the little man. Shear still has the trim physique of the jockey he once was. He's 5-foot-2 and 110 pounds, but just big enough to deflect a strapping thoroughbred, running amok in the paddock minutes before a race.
"No," the father said. "She's only five. And not a very big five at that."
"I'm 90," John Shear said. "I've already lived my life. Your little girl is just getting started."
Looking at Shear's badly broken body, and perhaps not aware of the massive internal bleeding that still concerns his family, the father was near tears. His little girl had never been to the races. They were on the rim of the walking ring, getting as close to these 1,000-pound animals as a spectator can, supposedly safe because they were separated from the horses by a white wooden fence. But then Sea and Sage, a 3-year-old maiden scheduled to make his third start, reared up. His jockey, Alonso Quinonez, was just seconds from being helped on to his back. Many horses instinctively know where they live. Sea and Sage, unfettered now, made a U-turn in the direction of the barn area. He darted toward a gap in the fence, an opening where John Shear, one of the paddock guards, stood, holding a rope across.
"Loose horse! Loose horse!" several of the horsemen in the ring shouted. Sea and Sage was unstoppable. He took off like one of those funny cars in auto racing, going from a standing start to a zillion miles an hour in only seconds.
Before they got to the races, the little girl's father had told her to pay attention to how big the horses were, and how small the jockeys were. "They're not much bigger than you," he said.
Shear, holding the rope, shouted to the crowd, "Loose horse, move back! Move back!"
But now he could hear Sea and Sage, definitely bearing down in his direction. The little girl was still standing there, as vulnerable as a shooting-gallery duck. Shear dropped the rope and grabbed her by the shoulders. He wheeled her around, so that he now stood, with his back to the ring, as the only obstacle between her and the horse. Sea and Sage glanced off Shear with his shoulder, knocking him down. One of his rear hooves clipped Shear on the cheekbone, and in one motion also opened a deep gash on his left arm. His first day in the hospital, Shear could only open one eye. He has multiple fractures of the pelvis, the same area where he suffered major injuries four years ago at Hollywood Park. That night, one of the ponies accompanying a horse to the track ran into Shear and flipped him in the air like he was confetti. On the way to the hospital, he called his wife Diane at home and said: "I'll be all right. I just got a hip out of place." He had broken a femur and they had to install a titanium rod to make him whole. He didn't work for six months.
The medics estimate that he'll be in the hospital for at least two months this time. "When I first saw him, he looked like he had been in a ring with Mike Tyson," said Diane Shear, his wife of 46 years. Mike Shear, their only child, told me that he had made remarkable improvement after the first 24 hours. "He's talking and laughing. That's a good sign."
The father of the little girl said that he would bring his daughter in to see Shear in a few days. "There's not a scratch on her," he said to Shear. "She would have been severely injured or even killed if you hadn't done what you did."
Also in the room were Gail McNeal and Ellis Davis. Before her retirement, McNeal ran the press elevator at Santa Anita for 33 years. Davis has been the Equibase and Daily Racing Form chart-taker at California tracks for decades. The four of them--John and Mike Shear, McNeal and Davis--were scheduled to spend a few days in Las Vegas, with McNeal the chauffeur. They tell me that John Shear is nobody to fool with when the game is Texas hold-em.
"John, we'll have to make that trip around October I guess," McNeal said.
"I don't know how I'll be able to do that," Shear said. "I'll be back working."
Mike Shear said he and his mother had suggested once that John Shear retire. He's been working at Santa Anita since 1962. Most of the people he knows are there. "He just loves working," Mike Shear said.
John Shear started out as a jockey, in his native England, but during World War II he took some shrapnel in the shoulder and couldn't ride competitively anymore. Around the age of 30, he trained horses in Canada, before moving to California in 1955. That was the year Swaps won the Santa Anita and Kentucky Derbys, but earlier a horse named Colonel Mack beat Swaps. Shear was the exercise rider and groom for Colonel Mack.
"John Shear is my hero, that's for sure," said Vince De Gregory, the agent for Alonso Quinonez, who was to have ridden Sea and Sage. The horse was eventually rounded up and returned to trainer Gary Mandella's barn, unharmed.
"God bless John Shear," De Gregory went on. "When that horse came running, most people would have run the other way."
Shear turned 90 on Jan. 17. A few days later, De Gregory (78 and no spring chicken himself) saw him in the paddock, and said: "Hey, John, how old are you?"
"I'm 90," Shear said. "Just turned 90."
The next day, the same thing.
The third day, more of the same.
"I'm 90," Shear said. "Come on, Vince, you know how old I am."
The Sierra Madre Tattler, Shear's neighborhood newspaper, published an item about his heroics, prompting dozens of responses.
"It isn't often that a person gets a chance to save a life," one of them said. "For those of us who know this principled man, that cannot be a surprise. . . He just acted on his instinct to do the right thing. . . This is old-school heroism. He's been an example for all of us."
But there's a miscreant in every crowd. Somewhere on the Web, someone wondered what the hey a 90-year-old man was doing, still working.
Saving a little girl's life, that's what.
Written by Bill Christine
Tuesday, March 08, 2011
Some Big ‘Caps Just Won’t Go Away
LOS ANGELES, March 8, 2011--A few hours after the running of the 1994 Santa Anita Handicap, the steward Pete Pedersen was having dinner with a few out-of-town friends at The Derby, his favorite restaurant. The Derby, which opened in 1922, was sold in 1938 to George Woolf, eight years before his fatal riding accident.
The 1994 Big 'Cap was decided by Pedersen and two of his colleagues, who ruled unanimously that the first-place finisher, The Wicked North, had interfered with the horse who ran fourth. The Wicked North was moved down to fourth place, and Stuka, beaten by almost two lengths and not involved in the alleged foul, was declared the winner. At The Derby, that night, Pedersen looked over to the next table, and the first person he saw was Phil Hersh, who owned The Wicked North.
"A nice guy," Pedersen said. "He had had a lot of horses, but hadn't won many big races. Nice guy, but you had to do what you had to do."
Chip Sturniolo, who owned The Derby in 1994, recognized the juxtaposition of the Pedersen and Hersh parties. Sturniolo came over to Pedersen and whispered: "Pete, you know we could put you upstairs if you want." When Woolf owned the restaurant, he lived on the second floor, in a cozy apartment, and afterwards one of the rooms was converted into a private dining room, used only on occasions when eight or 10 regular customers sought privacy.
"No," Pedersen said, politely waving Sturniolo away, "we'll be all right."
After the race, an embittered Hersh promised that he would appeal the stewards' ruling. He did, too, unsuccessfully. Hersh and many others felt that the stewards had a vendetta against The Wicked North's jockey, Kent Desormeaux, who had been fined and lectured to several times when he failed to ride out beaten horses, costing them higher placings.
"Both of our parties ate our meals in peace," said Pedersen as he recalled that night. "The Hersh group finished first. Mr. Hersh got up to leave, and stopped briefly at my table. I thought, 'uh-oh, here it comes.' But he leaned down, and all he said was: 'You know, today was a very tough day for both of us.' Then he left. He saved my life when he said that."
I had called Pedersen not to talk about The Wicked North and 1994, but to discuss the 2011 Santa Anita Handicap, which had been run the day before. A groundswell of opinion thought that Game On Dude, who beat Setsuko by a nose in a tremendous duel, had initiated some bumping incidents in mid-stretch that cost Setsuko the race. The 90-year-old Pedersen, who worked as a steward for about 60 years before his retirement several years ago, has been on the hot seat for some of California's most high-profile disqualifications. Besides The Wicked North, Pedersen had something to do with Perrault being disqualified in favor of John Henry in the 1982 Santa Anita Handicap, and he was also in the stand at Hollywood Park in 1984 for the first Breeders' Cup--when Fran's Valentine's number was taken down on the undercard, and Pedersen and two associates had to sort out the $3-million Classic, in which Wild Again's victory was allowed to stand following a melee with Gate Dancer and Slew o' Gold during the stretch run.
"I was there Saturday," Pedersen said. "Saw the race, watched the replays a number of times."
And? Tom Ward, one of the stewards for the 2011 Santa Anita Handicap, was one of Pedersen's partners in the stewards' stand for dozens of race meets over the years. The 2-1 decision for Game On Dude's number staying up was Ward and Scott Chaney for, Kim Sawyer against. But I knew that Pedersen wouldn't pull any punches.
"It wasn't an easy call," Pedersen said. "But I would have voted for disqualification. I don't think there was any question that the winner interfered with the horse (Twirling Candy) between him and (Setsuko). That started the chain reaction. And there was enough interference to merit a disqualification."
Much was made of Chantal Sutherland, the rider of Game On Dude, getting to talk to the stewards twice on the phone as they took 12 minutes before taking a vote. But it turns out that Victor Espinoza, who rode Setsuko, also picked up the phone twice, according to the Daily Racing Form. The objection by Richard Mandella, the trainer of Setsuko, was that Bob Baffert, Game On Dude's trainer, got on the phone with the stewards. Ward told the Racing Form that Baffert spoke briefly, for only a matter of seconds, and Ward said he wouldn't have taken the call had he known in the beginning that it was Baffert and not one of the jockeys.
The day after the race, Mandella said: "I said (after the race) that I had no comment, and I don't want to drag the game down by saying anything now about the (stewards') decision. I think they should talk to the jockeys, but I think it was chickenxxxx that Baffert was trying to talk to the other jockeys and to the stewards. I was trying to be a gentleman, and unless the trainer is claiming foul, I just don't think it's right that he is trying to talk to the jocks and the stewards."
Baffert has never been shy about punching in the stewards' number, sometimes in the strangest of circumstances. Prior to the 2001 running of the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, Baffert realized that he had erred in giving Point Given's jockey, Gary Stevens, last-minute instructions. Baffert told Stevens to have his whip in his left hand leaving the gate, when what he meant was the left hand for the stretch run, to discourage Point Given's lugging-in tendency. Baffert called the stewards, who relayed his wishes to an outrider, who caught up with Stevens shortly before the horses reached the starting gate. Whether the stewards should be used as conduits for race strategy is an arguable point.
Point Given won the race, and went on to the Horse of the Year title, and you would have thought that everything was hunky-dory. Uh-uh. Stevens was livid. "Obviously, the stick has to be in my left hand," he said after the race. "I don't know if (Baffert) thinks I'm a (effing) idiot or what. It didn't need to happen. It was a joke to me. Come on, I've been riding for 22 years, and I'm getting instructions three minutes from the gate?" The losers don't have a corner on weeping in horse racing.
Written by Bill Christine
Tuesday, March 01, 2011
Big ‘Cap Needs Twirling Candy To Win
LOS ANGELES, March 1, 2011--Some nice horses have won the Santa Anita Handicap the last several years. Milwaukee Brew and Lava Man, who joined John Henry as the only horses to win the race twice. Einstein, a force to be reckoned with on grass as well as dirt. But when it came to the national stage, all of them came up short. The last Big 'Cap winner to be voted Horse of the Year was Tiznow, and he won the race the year after he captured the title. More recent Big 'Cap winners have also come up empty in the Breeders' Cup. Milwaukee Brew was third, Lava Man seventh, and Einstein third and 11th. Last year, the third-place finisher in the Big 'Cap, Dakota Phone, won a Breeders' Cup race--the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. Not enough to revitalize the Big 'Cap's reputation.
They'll run the Santa Anita Handicap for the 74th time on March 5. Champions like Alysheba, John Henry, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, Ack Ack, Round Table and Seabiscuit have won the Big 'Cap, but it's been a while since a horse of their stature did it. Enter Twirling Candy, stage left. He could be the real goods. Another win at Santa Anita and he'll be the early favorite for the Breeders' Cup Classic in the fall. If Twirling Candy wins the Big 'Cap, Santa Anita's premier race has the chance to be the stepping stone for champions again.
John Sadler, his trainer, already says that Twirling Candy is the best horse in the country. Sadler is not one to traffic in braggadocio. He's saddled the 4-year-old colt for six wins in seven tries. Twirling Candy has won sprinting, he's won around two turns, he's won on grass, synthetics and on dirt. He hasn't tried running over nails yet, but don't put it past him. The only race Twirling Candy lost, at Hollywood Park, Sadler blamed himself for not having him wound tight enough to win.
Twirling Candy's most recent win came in the Strub, a 4 1/2-length canter that left the rest of the field coming up for air. All his jockey, Joel Rosario, needed was a hand ride. The late Jim Murray, my old colleague, would have said that it was as one-sided as an avalanche. The Strub, which always seemed like a natural prep for the Big 'Cap, no longer plays out that way, but Twirling Candy could change all that. The last horse to post a Strub-Big 'Cap double was Rock Hard Ten, six years ago.
The late Sid Craig and his wife Jenny bred Twirling Candy. Last month, the Will Farish family's Lane's End Farm and Marty Wygod bought into the horse. The Farishes are envisioning the day when Twirling Candy joins his sire, Candy Ride, at their Kentucky farm. Wygod, whose large breeding operation has left California in favor of Kentucky, is covering all his bases. He owns a substantial interest in Candy Ride.
Sadler, who is hotter than that feline on the tin roof this winter, is in what might seem to be a ticklish spot in the Big 'Cap, since he has another horse, Gladding, ready to run off his win in the San Antonio Handicap. When Charlie Whittingham, who won the Big 'Cap a record nine times, sent more than one horse into the race, he would bray, "We've got 'em surrounded." Sadler is not into braying any more than braggadocio, but he has little choice with Gladding, who has won both starts in California since he was bought by Lee and Susan Searing, Sadler clients, and exorcised from Calder. "All you have to do is touch John Sadler and you're lucky," Lee Searing says.
After Gladding won the San Antonio on the front end, Sadler was asked about running both horses in March. "I guess I've got to come out and say, 'Gladding will kick the crap out of Twirling Candy,'" he said.
Trainers with pat hands can crack wise all they want to. But to my surprise there will be 10 or 11 horses running in the Big 'Cap, including one who has only a maiden win in 11 starts. Twirling Candy, who paid just 50 cents on the dollar in the Strub, will be pounded ever more at the windows this time. The shortest winning price ever was Round Table, who paid $2.30 for a deuce in 1958.
My favorite Big 'Cap came in 1985, but it had nothing to do with Lord At War, Charlie Whittingham and Bill Shoemaker, who was riding the winner of the race for his 11th and last time. It had everything to do with my just getting to Santa Anita to cover it. The day before, at Gulfstream Park, almost 3,000 miles away, I had watched Proud Truth win the Florida Derby and wrote about it. Early on the morning of the Big 'Cap, I boarded an early flight out of Miami, with a three-hour time switch in my kick. Miami and a brief plane switch in Dallas, how could there possibly be any weather delays? There weren't, but both planes had mechanical problems that took hours to fix. When I finally got off the second plane at LAX, it was late afternoon and I was still 35 miles away. I pulled into the Santa Anita parking lot as the horses neared the starting gate. I watched Lord At War win from the winner's circle. Not the best place to view a race, but handy as hell for interviews.
Written by Bill Christine