"Tradegy inspires Blake"

Mar 21, 2015

"Tradegy inspires Blake"

This story isn't about life or death, but all the important things in between.

Blake Shinn has seen enough death and sickness in the past year to know how riding the unbeaten Gai Waterhouse-trained filly English in the $3.5 million Golden Slipper at Rosehill on Saturday is really just about riding another horse, in another race, for another year.

"There are bigger things in life - that's what I am starting to understand" - Blake Shinn

Less than a year ago, he was shattered when he answered the phone and learned Warwick Farm trainer Guy Walter - father-figure, mentor, the man who had showed more faith in him than anyone - had died of a heart attack.

Guy Walter, left, with Blake Shinn after Shinn won the Doomben Cup in 2014.

Less than a month ago, while serving a careless riding suspension, he found himself sitting in the loungeroom of the Southern California trainer Mike Mitchell, a giant of the racing industry in the US who doesn't have long to live because of aggressive brain tumours.

"There are bigger things in life - that's what I am starting to understand," says the leading jockey, drilling you with intense blue eyes. "When you want to be the best at something, that's all you focus on. I'm realising that to be the best, you need some perspective."

Shinn, 27, mightn't be the best quite yet, but he's a gun for hire.

In 2010, he gained infamy when he was suspended for a year after stewards found he'd turned over $1 million in bets, having gambled on all forms of racing.

He'd already won a Melbourne Cup and a Sydney premiership. And then?"I had it and lost it," he's said in the past.

He underwent counselling for his gambling addiction, came out the other side, and has since established himself as one of the country's most consistent riders in an unpredictable industry.

Few races are as unpredictable as the Golden Slipper, a 1200m feature race worth millions contested by horses who have raced only a handful of times.

In late February, Shinn seemed certain to partner Headwater for the Hawkes stable in the richest race for two-year-olds in the world.

The colt looked near unbeatable - until he came third to Waterhouse's Vancouver at Randwick on March 7.

The horse that caught the eye as much as Vancouver that afternoon was a filly called English, another from the Waterhouse stable with Shinn on board, in the Reisling Stakes.

Shinn walked out of Randwick that night with a tough decision swirling in his mind: Headwater or English?

Three days earlier, he'd been at the meeting at Wyong, navigating a horse called Omeros to his maiden victory.

The horse is part-owned by Craig Rounsefell, a bloodstock agent who Shinn had met in 2008 during a trip the US. Rounsefell is the son-in-law of Mike Mitchell.

After getting off Omeros, Rounsefell didn't have great news.

"He's only got a couple of weeks to live," Rounsefell said of Mitchell.

With a careless riding suspension to be served from the Saturday night onwards, Shinn decided there were bigger things in life.

He jumped on the plane with Rounsefell back to California, to see his dying friend.

"I thought, f--- it, I'll fly over," Shinn recalls. "When I saw him, he was tired. They have a bed in his loungeroom. In some parts, he was OK . But he's not good. He can't function well at all."

Shinn met Mitchell seven years ago.

He was the stable rider for Waterhouse then, and while serving a suspension she decided to send the young jockey over to the US to help in his development.

Shinn's been back to see Mitchell on a handful of occasions since.

This time, he walked through the art deco entrance at San Anita Park - one of the world's most stunning racetracks - without Mitchell but carrying him with him.

He had the opportunity to meet Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Gary Stevens, but the best moment came when one of Mitchell's horses won.

"It gave everyone a tonic," Shinn says. "The whole family was in tears."

# # #

Racing has shed a few of them in the past year. Few shed more than Shinn when Walter passed away.

Five days earlier, he'd had steered Walter's brave mare Streama to victory in the Doomben Cup in Brisbane, in her final race.

Walter said she was one of the best he'd ever trained. Less than a week later, he was gone.

Shinn's father passed away when he was 18, but he barely knew him. Walter's passing rocked him.

"He was more a father figure and mentor than anyone," he says. "He understood how I was feeling, emotionally or not. I miss that. I rode everything for him. I enjoyed that part of it all, the training side of it, getting involved. He was a good man who taught me a lot."

Many people backed Shinn after he returned from his year-long suspension, but nobody trusted him like Guy Walter.

Shinn would return to the mounting yard after completing a poor ride and be down on himself. Walter would pick him back up.

"Mate, it might've finished a length closer," he'd tell him. "He wouldn't have won. Don't be so hard on yourself."

Says Shinn now: "He was so respectful and honest to everyone. He wouldn't do the wrong thing by anyone. He's very caring. If things didn't go well, he would always try to find a positive. He'd be hard on himself, but if I rode one badly he wouldn't blame me. He would try to find a reason to say I rode it OK, and that's what I loved about him. That's a great quality. I was always thinking negatively. He was the other way.

"A lot of people showed faith in me when I came back from suspension. But he was the one who really took me under his wing. It takes a long time to really cement relationships. But he just trusted me for who I am. That's why it's hard now that he's gone. It's hard every day."

Perversely, Walter's death has helped Shinn to become the jockey he always knew he could be.

Without the late trainer's backing, he started to ride for the bigger stables. For Waller. For Godolphin. Shooting To Win is certain to be one of the stars of The Championships, with the Queen Elizabeth Stakes and Doncaster earmarked.

"I wasn't sure," Shinn says, when you ask if he thought he could ever ride this well. "I always knew I could because I knew I had it in me. But it's just putting the pieces of the puzzle together to get there. I just worked hard, tried to build relationships and do the best I can. It's gone better than I've expected."

# # #

Just before Shinn boarded the plane to the US to see his dying mate, he texted Team Hawkes with his verdict. He would be riding English in the Slipper.

The Hawkes family didn't know at that stage if Headwater would race in the Slipper. For Shinn, it made his decision a no-brainer.

"I could've been on either one," he says. "I would've been happy to ride Headwater."

Shinn has had enough of missed opportunities, especially in this race.

In 2008, he was supposed to ride another Waterhouse juvenile, the unbeaten Sebring, in the Slipper.

He'd ridden him to victory in his previous races, but was then suspended and Glen Boss was booked.

Sebring won the race. Shinn still hasn't won the Golden Slipper.

"That was a big disappointment," he reflects, before adding. "But it's not life or death."

No, it isn't. The most important things are what happen in between

Andrew Webster - "The Sydney Morning Herald"