John Shear: Ringside Seat to Nearly a Century of Memories

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John Shear | Benoit

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To say there’s a touch of the picaresque about John Shear’s life story would be like saying Pope Benedict flirts with Catholicism.

During an over-stuffed 99 years and counting, Santa Anita’s beloved paddock captain has had front row seats to historical game changers on both sides of the pond. He’s rubbed shoulders with royalty and assassins, film stars and gangsters. Fate has intervened more than once on his behalf in ways that’ll make the hairs on the back of your neck stand taller than a redwood.

“You’ll have to forgive me–my memory’s not quite what it was,” apologized Shear one recent afternoon from his apartment in the leafy canopy of Sierra Madre, Santa Anita racetrack nestled somewhere in the distance. With that confession dispensed with, Shear then proceeded to flex a razor-sharp recall–one that would shame an upstart a quarter his age–over Dickensian beginnings in London that would make Oliver Twist blush with privilege.

Shear was four when his mother passed away through severe hemorrhaging giving birth to her eighth child. She was 39. “It’s not like today,” said Shear. “You died from something like that back then.” His father married soon after, but like a stepmother from a Grimms’ fairy tale, the new Mrs. Shear slammed the door to the youngest of the brood, meaning Shear and his brother were sent to an orphanage.

Fourteen when he came out, Shear still found the family door barred. And so, essentially homeless, a chance meeting on the London streets found him a home with a friend of his mother’s–a base from which to make a living, first at the King’s Cross railway station, a 15-mile daily round-trip on foot. On the way home one day, a well-heeled gentlemen stopped Shear, enquired about the threadbare shoes falling off his feet.

“The very next day he was waiting there for me with a brand-new pair of shoes,” said Shear.

Equipped with his fancy new footwear, Shear took a job as a page at Westminster ice rink, where two men approached the boy, asked whether he’d had experience with horses. He hadn’t, of course, but the young Shear ended up at a polo club anyway, where he performed odd jobs and learned to ride. And from there, he made his way to the Epsom stable of trainer Peter Thrale.

“He was a good guy,” said Shear, about Thrale, who was carved from the old-school mold of trainer, a trader at heart. “Every horse in the yard was for sale.” He trained greyhounds, too, and liked nothing more than a gamble. “Greatest man you could ever work for.”

Before long, World War II erupted across Europe. “I was coming back with a horse one day and there were two men standing at the gates,” said Shear. The men called the boy over, asked him his age. Eighteen, Shear replied. The men ordered him to take a medical, for eligibility into the armed services. “‘Then the government will call you,’ they said.”

The government did call. Shear was funneled first into factory work, repairing damaged airplanes–which is where the first of a series of inexplicable events occurred, marking the favorable curvature of his life.

One day, an airplane with a broken propeller was wheeled into the hanger. Shear dragged over a stool to reach up and start fixing it. “This boy, he said to me, ‘John, don’t worry. I’ll do it.'” The young man mounted the stool, which stood on a floor as slick as an ice sheet. “The stool shot away from him,” said Shear. “He was suspended in the air, fell flat on the ground, smashed his head. Dead. The nicest guy, he was. I can still see it happen right before me.”

Back and forth from home every day, Shear rode pillion on the back of a friend’s motorbike. At the end of one long workday near Christmas, Shear loitered chatting with his colleagues. His friend, however, was in a hurry to leave, took another worker back instead. “I don’t know what happened, but he hit a curb,” said Shear. “The pillion rider flew right over his head, landed on the pavement and was killed.”

The incident didn’t frighten Shear away from motorbikes. He bought his own and was coasting along a quiet country road when the car in front suddenly screeched to a halt–Shear flew through the rear plastic window. “I went right through it and landed on the couch,” he said. “I wasn’t even hurt.” The motorbike was mangled, however. “Twisted like a figure eight,” he said.

When Shear was deployed, he set sail for Belgium. On his way through the small war-torn country toward France, Shear was slammed in the shoulder with artillery fire. “I had to go back on the hospital ship,” he said. “Had to go into army blues–wasn’t fit enough to go back into service.”

Shear’s post army life–he was discharged in 1946–started inauspiciously. He went to Newmarket, solicited a well-respected trainer there, was taken on as part of a team of aspiring apprentices. They were tasked the job of riding the yearlings, who the trainer demanded ridden in perfect squadron formation, a tight line, irons clanking.

The yearling given Shear was a little rabbit, intimidated by the others, who scooted forward or sucked back as his poor rider struggled in vain to maintain the rigid line. Eventually, the yearling dropped his head, catapulted Shear toward Mars, took off bucking around Newmarket heath, delighted.

“The trainer came up to me on his horse–he had a crop with him. He said, ‘alright boy?’ I said, ‘yessir.’ I was sitting on the ground and he whacked me around the ear with the crop,” said Shear. The trainer ordered him to catch the horse, take it back to the stable. “I got on, took the horse back to the stable and said, ‘goodbye.’ I didn’t even wait to collect my money. I just left.”

Shear returned to Thrale’s stable in Epsom, setting the stage for a rare brush with a couple of nosey royals. It happened after the races at Windsor Racecourse, where Shear and co. were working a horse called Three Cheers, readying a plunge in the 1951 Cesarewitch Handicap, run over a zesty 2 1/4 miles.

Shear was observing the work on horseback when princesses Elizabeth and Margaret rode up, wondering what on earth was going on in their backyard (Windsor Castle’s stately walls rearing up behind them). No doubt chastened by thoughts of London Tower, Shear spilled the beans. The princesses stayed and watched the work–Liz even commented on Three Cheers’ good form. The horse later landed the gamble in the Cesarewitch at odds of 17-2.

The future queen of England, Shear believes, had a flutter on Three Cheers. The next time he saw her, at Folkestone Racecourse, she spotted him among the crowd and slipped him a knowing smile. “She recognized me,” he said. “I never saw her again after that.”

But life in general in post-war England was stultifying. “England after the war, there was nothing going on–the only thing that was happening was in movie theaters. Nothing else,” Shear said. He made this observation to a woman visiting from British Columbia, Canada–a family member of the people whose house he shared, in Epsom.

“She said, ‘well, if you like, John, you can come over and stay at my place. I’ve three grown sons and plenty of room.'” Shear didn’t immediately take up the offer–tried France, where he was denied a visa on account of there being too few jobs for the French. And so, in 1954, he set sail for Montreal. “From Montreal I took the night train to British Columbia.”

Once there, Shear found a job with a trainer who took a small string on a five-day road trip to Agua Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico, in search of a winter tan. Shear tagged along. They arrived at a barn shared with a trainer whose client list included Betty Grable–she of Lloyd’s-insured legs fame–and her husband, band leader Harry James. “Betty Grable used to come back to the barn every Saturday, some Sundays too, look at her horses.”

Shear’s boss, however, became gravely ill, left Shear in charge while he returned to Canada to recuperate. The problem was, “the jockeys down in Tijuana were nothing but crooks,” said Shear, who remained on the outside of a clique that decided who won what when. Shear started a hot favorite, for example. “This horse should have won.” Instead, he was beaten a head. “What they did was push my horse out of the way. I tried to claim foul, but the [stewards] didn’t want to listen.”

Shear was sick to his eyeballs of Tijuana. In a deal prearranged by his boss, he traveled with the string up to San Francisco, placed them in the hands of another trainer. Then, when Shear had had enough of the Golden City, he traveled south to Santa Anita, took a job as an exercise rider. In 1962, he started working for Santa Anita itself, been part of the track’s furniture ever since.

At this point, Shear’s wife, Diane, arrived home, just in time for the next topical chapter of our pilgrim’s progress–the part where his story overlaps with one of the century’s most notorious political murders.

“I’ve never told anyone about this before–not publicly,” said Diane, conspiratorially, as she settled in her seat, a portrait of Zenyatta hanging over her, like a good luck charm. But first, let’s set the scene.

Shear was working in 1965 for trainer Gordon Bowsher when they took on a wet-behind-the-ears hotwalker by the name of Sirhan Sirhan. “He was a good worker,” said Shear. “We used to call him Sol.”

The waifish Sirhan had aspirations of riding–he eventually graduated to a ranch in Corona, inland Los Angeles, to learn. “The next time I saw him, he was walking on crutches,” said Shear. “I said, ‘that didn’t take long, Sol.’ He said, ‘don’t worry, as soon as I get better, I’ll be back on a horse.'” The next time Shear saw Sirhan was a few years later at Hollywood Park, dressed in a suit and fineries. “He looked like a gentleman.”

As Diane remembers it, Sirhan was flanked by a couple of characters she knew to be involved in the criminal underworld. “I said to John, ‘look who he’s with,'” she said. A few days later, Sirhan Sirhan shot senator Bobby Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in LA.

Why Diane thinks the two shady characters circling Sirhan that day at Hollywood Park is important is because of a Teamsters labor union meeting her husband had attended a week prior in Downtown LA–a meeting similarly graced by the organization’s leader, Jimmy Hoffa, said Shear. It was the first and only time Shear had ever seen Hoffa in LA. And Kennedy, of course, was instrumental in putting Hoffa away.

“It may not mean anything,” said Diane. “But it’s certainly strange.”

Shear made his own headlines in 2011 when he threw himself beneath a loose horse at Santa Anita to shield a 5-year-old girl. A nonagenarian at the time, Shear spent a month in hospital with multiple smashed bones. Since then, Santa Anita has taken to commemorating Shear’s birthday–this past Friday, it was honored with a cake and a race named in his honor.

According to Domenico Caringella, who clocks in at a sprightly 74 years of age and works alongside Shear at Santa Anita, the track’s paddock captain was recently asked when he’s going to retire. A hundred, Shear replied, adding that he’ll still think about it. Said Caringella, “That’s John for you.”

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