A Jockey, a Horse, and a Life Saved

horses waiting for the gate to release

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A Jockey, a Horse, and a Life Saved
| Published April 8, 2014 |

By Earl H. Perkins
Thursday Review associate editor

John Shear had the potential to become one of England's truly great jockeys, 5-foot-2 and 110 pounds, with a fearless personality and a way with horses. Then along came World War II, with Shear taking shrapnel in a shoulder, causing him to never ride competitively again, according to the Jockeys' Guild and Mail Online.

The future had bigger things in store for Shear, training horses in Canada when he was about 30, before moving on to California in 1955. And oh, those were the days. That year Swaps won the Santa Anita and Kentucky Derby, but before that, a horse named Colonel Mack had beaten Swaps. Shear was Colonel Mack's exercise rider and groom. He took a job working at Santa Anita Park in 1962.

These events led up to that fateful day in March of 2011, with Shear gracefully floating into his ninth decade, working as a steward at the track. On a truly gorgeous day, he stood holding the rope near the rim of the walking ring, chatting with spectators as everyone awaited the race. A white wooden fence separated spectators from the 1,000-pound horses, causing many to feel fairly safe. The moment was frozen in time as Sea & Sage, a 3-year-old slated to make his third start, was suddenly spooked and reared up.

Jockey Alonso Quinonez was seconds from being helped onto his mount, but then Sea & Sage, the grandson of Secretariat, suddenly spun around and headed for the barn area.

"Loose horse, loose horse," yelled several horsemen in the ring. Shear stood at the fence's only opening, holding the rope as the horse charged directly at him.

"Loose horse, move back! Move back," he shouted at the crowd. Several people scattered, leaving only the little girl exposed to the runaway animal. Shear instinctively dropped the rope and grabbed the girl, spinning around to protect her from the horse.

Sea & Sage knocked the elderly gentleman down, while his rear hoof clipped Shear's cheekbone and then opened a gash on his left arm.

"The horse came full speed and the horse's shoulder hit John's head," witness Aaron Hesz told CBS 2 News in Los Angeles.

Roxanne Key was unhurt, but Shear had suffered massive injuries and was rushed to the hospital. His first day there, he was barely able to open one eye.

Affectionately known at the track as Little John, Shear asked Key's father "How old is your little girl, about nine?" he said. "No," Michael Key said. "She's only five. And not a very big five at that."

"I'm 90," Shear said. "I've already lived my life. Your little girl is just getting started.

"I knew I was going to get hit. I thought there was the possibility I was going to die, but you cannot stop and think should I or shouldn't I. There is a five-year-old girl."

He had multiple pelvis fractures, the same area where he'd suffered major injuries four years earlier at Hollywood Park. That time Shear had been flipped in the air by a horse, sustaining major injuries including a broken femur, which caused the installation of a titanium rod. He was unable to return to work for six months. The latest incident would cause the celebrity to miss seven months before returning to Santa Anita.

"There's not a scratch on her," Michael Key said to Shear. "She would have been severely injured or even killed if you hadn't done what you did. She would have been dead. It would have crushed her, and I would have been holding my dead baby in my arms."

Shear's wife and their son, Michael, had suggested John might want to retire, considering that he'd been working at Santa Anita for several decades. Noting that most of the people Shear knows are at the track, Mike Shear said "He just loves working."

However, the Key family was not the only ones grateful for Shear's act of heroism.

"John Shear is my hero, that's for sure," said Vince De Gregory, Quinonez’s agent. Sea & Sage was eventually returned to trainer Gary Mandella's barn, unharmed.

"God bless John Shear," De Gregory said. "When that horse came running, most people would have run the other way."

It would take almost three years before Shear would meet the little girl whose life he had saved, but it was worth the wait.

"I have always wanted to meet her and I was so sad that I never got the chance to meet her when I got better," Shear said. The longed-for reunion came as Roxy performed at a ballet studio.

"I was on pins and needles waiting to see her," he said. "And when I finally see her come out and dance, it felt so exhilarating I can hardly explain. "When her mother came over and hugged me and said you’re my daughter’s guardian angel, I felt wonderful."