Our television screens are filled this month with the breathtaking exploits of young men in short pants and tattoos, and for their dramatic efforts we call them heroes, and, really, we have no idea.
You want March Madness? How about an old man saving the life of a little girl by throwing himself in front of a frightened horse?
You want one shining moment? It happened a couple of weeks ago, when longtime Santa Anita paddock guard John Shear, 90, tossed a 6-year-old girl out of the path of a runaway horse just in time to be trampled.
Cinderella story? That would be when Shear walks again, which could be in a couple of months, as he is lying today in a hospital with a multiple pelvic fractures, a fractured cheekbone, and gashes above his left eye and down his left arm.
“Could have been worse,” Shear said, wincing beneath an oxygen tube during a Tuesday visit. “Something could have happened to the little girl.”
We interrupt the annual frenzy over the NCAA basketball tournament to write about a real buzzer beater. Nobody was cheering, the video has been locked up, and the only visible reward is a mug of flowers sitting next to a thin bed in a sterile room filled with pain and worry. But when a 5-foot, 110-pound giant of an athlete makes a play that saves a life, somebody should holler about it.
“I’ve already lived most of my life, the little girl has her entire life in front of her,” Shear said. “There’s no question I would do it again.”
It was an early Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita. Shear, working his 50th year at the track, was supervising the paddock guards, making sure the huge horses don’t harm the gawking fans.
Three of those fans were a father and his two young children. The father, who has asked not to be identified because his daughter is still traumatized by the incident, was holding his young son in his arms while his 6-year-old was on his hand.
The man said his daughter was aware of being very small for her age, so he took her to the track to show her the jockeys.
“I wanted her to see that you could do great things no matter how big you were,” the father said .
While the family was standing with a crowd outside a wooden fence, a three-year-old horse named Sea and Sage reared up and began running toward them.
“Loose horse!” track workers shouted, and all but one person parted and scattered away from the one section where the fence had been replaced by a rope held by Shear.
As the 1,000-pound animal ran toward that rope, Shear noticed a solitary child standing frozen in its way.
Said her father: “I reached for her and she was gone . . . then I saw her standing by herself with the horse coming at her.”
Shear jumped in front of the horse and pushed the girl aside just as the animal knocked him to the ground. The girl immediately stood up and shouted to her father that she was fine. Then she saw the Shear lying there bleeding, and began screaming.
“If he had not protected her, that horse would have crushed every bone in her body,” said the father. “That man saved my daughter’s life.”
Shear will tell you that he wasn’t protecting a customer, he was taking care of family. For a half-century, the tracks in Southern California have been his home, the paddock has been his corner, his life devoted to the beauty and beasts of the racing game.
“I love the horses, I love the life, I love the atmosphere,” he said. “I know it sounds crazy, but I even love the smells.”
He wanted to be a jockey, but, while fighting for England in World War II, shrapnel filled his shoulder, making competitive riding impossible. So he came to the United States and did the next best thing, spending his life as a workout rider, a trainer and now, forever, the paddock whisperer.
“He has been a rock for us all these years,” said George Haines, Santa Anita president.
Shear is stone on the outside, and warmth within. He’s the guy who always covers for those coworkers with family issues or car trouble. He is the guy who calms down the angry employees, pumps up the lazy ones, and always understands that this is a sport not only about animals, but people.
“He’s so fiercely loyal, so generous, I’m like, ‘John, you’re 90 years old, you don’t need to do all these things for other people’ . . . but he always does,” said Gail McNeal, a former longtime Santa Anita worker and one of Shear’s closest friends.
His reward for nearly 50 full years of service? He’s been employee of the month once. He drives a Honda Accord and lives in a condo down the road from the track with longtime wife Diane, whom he met at — where else? — the racetrack. He makes barely $100 a day in seasonal work, but he’s never been able to do anything else.
“I haven’t had a lot of money,” Shear said. “But I’ve got all that I need.”
Upon hearing of the accident, many folks wondered why a 90-year-old man was allowed to work in such a risky environment. But as much as he loves the game, the game loves him, with Santa Anita considering him as much of monument as those mountains beyond the backstretch.
“When I heard about the accident, the first thing I thought was that my father was in the wrong place at the right time,” said Mike, his only son. “Then I thought about it and realized, you know, he was in the right place at the right time.”
While the girl’s father has visited Shear and calls him every day, the girl is still too upset to see him. But she eventually will, and the little big man knows exactly what she will say.
“I’ll ask if she’s OK,” John Shear said softly. “I really hope she’s going to be OK.”