Racetrack hero reluctantly retires, aged 100

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John Shear with the commemorative plaque unveiled on October 1 at Santa Anita.
John Shear with the commemorative plaque unveiled on October 1 at Santa Anita. © Santa Anita Park

A racetrack employee who threw himself in front of a bolting horse to save a five-year-old girl from being trampled at Santa Anita in 2011, has retired at the age of 100, and a race has been renamed in his honor.

John Shear started out with Santa Anita in 1961, and was Paddock Captain when he retired in June. Next year  the Santana Mile, on April 10, 2022, will be renamed the “John Shear Mile”.

Shear gained national recognition when on March 12, 2011, he sustained life-threatening injuries as he threw himself between a loose horse and a 5-year-old girl just outside Santa Anita’s Seabiscuit Walking Ring.

Before the incident, Shear was in his normal position holding the rope on the west entrance of the track’s walking ring.

Sea and Sage, a three-year-old gelding who had started twice previously at the current meeting series, was in the walking ring with nine other horses for the upcoming race. Sea and Sage wheeled, freeing himself from his handler and, in a 180-degree about-face, sprinted towards the opening Shear was guarding just outside the walking ring.

Replayed video footage showed that Shear, instead of dropping the perimeter rope he was holding and protecting himself, ran in front of the loose horse and threw himself in front of, and on top of, the young girl in the crowd.

Shear’s instinct’s were right, as Sea and Sage collided with him as he shielded the girl.

Sea and Sage emerged uninjured and was caught in the Santa Anita stable area.

“Horses are like homing pigeons,” Shear said in an interview following the incident. “When they’re upset, they want to go home. So when I heard someone shouting ‘Loose horse!,’ I knew it would be heading our way as it tried to go back to the barn.”

Despite suffering multiple fractures to his pelvis, hip, back and cheekbone, along with internal bleeding that resulted in a significant loss of blood, Shear was back on the beat in Santa Anita’s Paddock Gardens in less than a year, and continues to defy Father Time.

A commemorative plaque honoring Shear’s decades-long commitment to customer service and safety was unveiled in Santa Anita’s Paddock Gardens area and Shear was feted in a Winner’s Circle ceremony on opening day of the 2021 Autumn Meet on October 1.

In his role as Paddock Captain Shear would be found manning a rope and otherwise “quarterbacking” the ebb and flow of horses and people in Santa Anita’s picturesque Paddock Gardens area each race day.

John Shear's Post at Santa Anita was unveiled on October 1.
John Shear’s Post at Santa Anita was unveiled on October 1. © Santa Anita Park

“I love coming to work here, I really do. Everyone is friendly. The jockeys, the trainers, owners and the fans. The people that come here for the races are so kind and thoughtful. I’ve known many of them for quite a few years and I’ve known their children since many of them were young. It’s like greeting extended family,” Shear said.

Sidelined because of Covid-related restrictions at the track earlier in the year, Shear was reluctant to call it a day but finally decided to enjoy the benefits of retirement.

“It’s official, I have retired from work,” Shear said. “For 60 years, I worked all the Southern California racetracks, met many incredible people and saw the best horses. It has been a career I look back (upon) with great pride and wonderful memories. I’m in great health and will visit Santa Anita as a fan.”

He lives in nearby Sierra Madre with his wife, Diane.

Orphaned as a young boy in his native England, Shear, at 4’11”, originally aspired to be a jockey and following service in World War II, he emigrated to Vancouver, B.C., from where he came to Santa Anita for the first time as an exercise boy in 1954.

“I was exercising horses for a guy in Vancouver and he asked me if I’d like to go with him to Santa Anita that fall,” said Shear when interviewed before his 100th birthday in January.

John Shear has retired from his job as Paddock Captain at Santa Anita. He has worked at the California track since 1961.
John Shear has retired from his job as Paddock Captain at Santa Anita. He has worked at the California track since 1961. © Santa Anita Park

“I said, ‘Sure,’ and as soon as I stepped off that van in the Stable Area here, is said ‘Lord, this is where I want to be.’  The place was so incredibly beautiful and I’ve never gotten tired of it.”

A big believer in daily exercise, Shear, who remains a svelte 104 pounds, had this simple advice for a long life before his 99th birthday:

“Find something you love, stay positive and exercise!”

Chris Merz, Santa Anita’s Director of Racing and Racing Secretary, described Shear as “a legend among all of us here at Santa Anita, fans, jockeys, horsemen and employees”.

“We are proud to rename this race in his honor and to help share his legacy of kindness, compassion and dedication to the well being of our sport with many generations of future racegoers.”

 

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