"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.
"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.