07/24/2008 11:00PM

Riding colony a family affair


GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - Jockeys Tony McNeil, 51, and David Shepherd, 50, have each been followed into the family business by two sons, and all six riders competed at the same meet for the first time ever during the Lone Star Park season that closes on Sunday.

It has been a productive time for both families.

Bryan McNeil, 24, won his first stakes race earlier this month in the $100,000 Assault. His brother, apprentice Erik McNeil, 21, launched his career in May. Meanwhile, Justin Shepherd, 21, has been on a hot streak, and ranked fourth in the Lone Star standings through Thursday. His younger brother, apprentice Dusty Shepherd, 17, picked up his first career win on June 13.

"It's pretty rare in any sport to have a father and son compete against each other," said Tony McNeil. "They do it in car racing, but it's pretty rare in horse racing."

Rare, but not a surprise in this case. The foundation for riding careers was laid very early on in the lives of the young McNeils and Shepherds, who all grew up together in Oklahoma, where their fathers rode at Remington Park.

"They've all seen the ups and downs," said David Shepherd. "They've come to visit us in the hospital enough times so they know what they're getting into, and they still want to do it. They're as sick as we are!"

Bryan McNeil and Dusty Shepherd are both recuperating from recent spills, which means the goal of each father and son team all being in a race together will not happen this meet at Lone Star.

"I've ridden against my brother and my dad, just not my dad and brother together," said Erik McNeil.

Bryan will now be out five weeks with a broken left wrist sustained in spill at Lone Star last Saturday.

"If it was up to me, I'd be back tomorrow," he said.

Bryan McNeil launched his career riding Quarter Horses for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Brooks in 2004. He shares the same enthusiasm for the game as Dusty Shepherd, who sustained six fractured vertebrae in a spill at Lone Star on June 28, the same day Erik McNeil registered his first win. Dusty Shepherd said he will find out how much longer he will be sidelined at his next doctor's visit, Aug. 12.

"I'm ready to get back riding now, to continue it," he said. "It's what I've wanted to do since I was little. My mom trains, and watching my dad and brother, I've forever been around it."

Erik elected to pursue a riding career the same week he was to sign a letter of intent to accept a track scholarship from the University of Texas A & M International in Laredo.

"I decided to come to the horse business," he said. "It was my dad, seeing him come back off all those injuries after nine years, still coming back and 50 years old and being strong. I want to have the passion like that, that he has."

Both fathers have suffered their share of injuries.

Tony McNeil fractured his femur in a three-horse spill in 1996. He returned to ride briefly for three months, then went on hiatus. But in 2005, at the behest of longtime friend and champion jockey Cash Asmussen, he returned to riding. David Shepherd has just launched his comeback. He suffered injuries similar to McNeil's in 2003, when his femur and hip were crushed in a riding accident at a training center. He made his return to race riding this meet at Lone Star.

"The first of the year, I didn't know if I would be able to," he said. "It's just really turning the corner now.

"That was one of my goals. I want to ride with both of my boys."

Justin Shepherd said his father's comeback has been inspiring.

"I thought he was done after the last time he got hurt," he said. "I'm real glad he's back. It's fun riding with him. I grew up watching him.

"It's unfortunate about my brother's situation. I wish we could have all rode together, that would be neat."

For the Shepherds, it could happen later this year when all are based at Remington. As for the McNeils, it could take longer. Following the Lone Star meet, Tony McNeil will be riding at Retama Park near San Antonio, while both of his sons will head to Remington.

As the apprentices work to carve out a place in racing like their more seasoned fathers and brothers have, they are getting the support of some key players. Dallas Barton, a high percentage trainer at Lone Star, has been a patron of Dusty Shepherd's.

"He's got a lot of ability," he said. "The main thing in this game is you've just got to get up and work at it, and he has a very good work ethic."

Trainer Steve Asmussen put Erik McNeil on his first winner, and the apprentice is grateful for the barn's backing. Asmussen said he sees a bright future for Erik.

"I think he's a quality person with a ton of talent that we'll all be at the coffee shop, talking about when we knew him," said Asmussen.