The future still hangs precariously in the balance for one of our greatest jockeys and a colourful character of the game. The 52 year old Kevin Shea, aka ‘Shezy’, looks, and behaves, more like a 32 year old but concedes that he is experiencing some serious ‘wear and tear’ after a race-riding career spanning 37 years.
Kevin Shea is a straight-talking no-nonsense sort of guy.
What’s your pet hates in racing? – we asked, to break the ice.
“I love the game, so I luckily don’t have many. Probably bad losers and grandstand jockeys top my list. They drive me mad. It is very difficult to criticise a ride when you haven’t experienced the challenge first hand. Bad losers too! If there are eight races and 100 horses running at a meeting, there will probably only be 8 winners at the end of it. We all love to win – but you have to learn to handle losing in this game – otherwise you will never succeed and enjoy it!”
Since a major back operation in early December, South African racing enthusiasts have had their sought after entertainment diet of world-class Kevin Shea rides and witty post-race quips reduced to his more austere regular Greyville Friday night appearances – where he partners veteran broadcaster Martin Locke for the Tellytrack overseas feed.
Click on the link below for a good laugh:
The eloquent and knowledgeable ‘Shezy’ is a natural on the screen – but he brushes off our compliment by saying that he enjoys the experience and would be at the night racing anyway.
We asked if this was possibly the start of a whole new career?
“I appreciate the positive feedback but I am really just being myself and make my observations and comments as I see them. I am lucky enough to have been interviewed in my racing related travels all over the globe – so being in front of the camera is not new or intimidating for me. While Martin is a vastly experienced mentor, I am there on a voluntary basis for now and we will see how it goes. I am still a licenced jockey and let’s not forget that!”
While lighthearted and full of chirps, the charismatic Kevin Shea’s career looks to have reached the crossroads in more ways than one since he rode two quick winners after returning in what looked to be a miracle comeback to the saddle in early October last year.
He had suffered a debilitating back injury and had gone to great lengths to speed up the process, visiting various medical practitioners, including a masseuse, the spinal injury unit at a local hospital, a physiotherapist, doctors and even a man in the centre of Durban who practised traditional Chinese medicine.
Shea was not sure whether the treatment by the latter had sped up his recovery or not, but he said he had been ‘desperate’ to get back riding, so had been willing to give it a try.
“This entire experience of recovery and therapy has been a great learning curve for me – even at my age. I have been riding for 37 years, so can expect some wear and tear, but I have been researching and learning and all the little things I have now been made aware of – like simply not bending down – and a million things the spinal unit taught me should help prevent further injury.”
He was over the moon when tests in early September showed that no long term damage had been done to the nerves by a ‘bulged C3 vertebra’, but he went through indescribable pain for about a week as the disc had been touching one of the nerves.
He bravely returned to riding in early October and things were looking bright when he booted home two quick winners to build his confidence. And he looked on the road to recovery and a hoped for reunion with speed star Via Africa in Dubai.
But his miracle comeback didn’t last a week as he collapsed, unable to walk.
“I had a massive back operation, with 5 screws and 2 rods and bone graft on the L4,L5 S1 verterbrae on 5 December and I am feeling the aches and pains at the moment. I am not sure what the future holds but I hope to make a decision in a few months. I am a naturally positive person and, while I am being realistic when looking at the outcomes of similar cases, I won’t give up hope of a return until my doctor tells me to.”
He had hoped to ride the brilliant Via Africa in Dubai but said sadly that those plans were shelved after his comeback had been curtailed.
“She is one of the greatest sprinting fillies that I have ever ridden and I was looking forward to riding her and hopefully taking some other rides for Mike De Kock again in Dubai.”
While on the subject of good horses, great trainers and Dubai, Kevin did not hesitate to say that he rated his Vodacom Durban July winner Ipi Tombe and the Mike Bass-trained Sun Classique amongst his greatest.
“It is tough comparing horses but all three of the mentioned fillies were Gr1 winners and top horses. I recall that I rode Sun Classique three times in Dubai and won all three. Then Ipi Tombe’s July win was out of the top drawer. Just watch the film of the race. It says it all.”
What of Mike De Kock’s success in Dubai?
“I was reading he has 72 horses nominated for Dubai World Cup night. Mike’s a master – he always holds his own there – and anywhere else in the world, for that matter. Dubai has moved tracks from Nad Al Sheba to Meydan and the facilities are really and truly the best in the world.”
A natural sportsman, Shea says he hated school but loved sport.
He grew up in Durban and went to Northlands High School, where he excelled at sport.
Through that love of competition and the ability to adapt to anything athletic that he tried his hand at, the slightly built 15 year old seemed a natural to become a jockey – and he duly joined the SA Jockey Academy in 1977.
“I loved the lifestyle at the academy and I think it brought the best out in me. Those were great days. Cyril Buckham, Vince Curtis and Dave Cave were the riding masters and I was one of 38 apprentices and spent a memorable five years making some good friends and loving every moment of it. Interestingly, I am the last one of those 38 guys still riding.”
Shea rode over 100 winners in his apprenticeship.
He steered his first winner home for Des Rich in 1979 on a horse called Druid’s Robe, a moment he labels ‘sensational.’
“It was the feature race of the day over 1200m at Greyville. I was sitting in midfield and I pressed the button halfway up the straight and he stormed home. It feels like yesterday,” he said.
Kevin was a talented rider and it didn’t take him long to ride his first Gr 1 winner. That was on Have A Fling in the Holiday Inns in his 3rd year for Buller Benton, just shortly after he had taken over from Fred Rickaby.
“That is the present day Summer Cup and the horse was carded to carry a light weight. I had been riding a lot of work and I was really pleased to get the chance. I took it with both hands and it was another thrilling moment.”
He also worked for some of the great trainers of the game – the likes of Tony Furness, Doug Campbell, David Goss, David Payne and in recent years Mike De Kock.
“I realise how fortunate I have been when I list those big names and others that I have ridden for. Good trainers usually mean good horses – and they can make jockeys look good too!”
For now it is a waiting game for Kevin Shea. He has the support of his wife Kim and his three children – and he wants to ride again.
But medical science and nature will make the final call.
In closing, we contacted his former boss Mike De Kock in Dubai, just before going to print, to summarise the man behind the ‘Shezy’ legend:
“Kevin is a great rider, a top team player and he was a big asset to the stable for many years. We shared many memorable moments on and off the racetrack.”
Fitting words from a fellow legend.