12/26/2011 4:10PM

Santa Anita opening day welcomes hero, horses

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Benoit & Associates
Ismene wins the $100,000 California Breeders' Champion Stakes on Monday, opening day of the Santa Anita winter-spring meet.

ARCADIA, Calif. – There were plenty of smiling faces at Santa Anita for its opening day on Monday, but none shined brighter than that of John Shear, who was celebrating his 50th opening day manning the ropes as a paddock guard, a scenario that looked very much in doubt nine months ago.

It was on March 12, while stationed at his familiar post at the southwest end of the paddock, that Shear threw himself in front of a loose horse, likely saving the life of a young girl who was behind him. Shear suffered severe injuries – a fractured pelvis, plus internal bleeding – that would have been of concern for just about anyone, let alone a man who had just turned 90.

But Shear looks and acts far younger than that, and his exercise discipline helped him not only recover, but get back to work following what he jokingly referred to Monday as “my nine-month vacation.”

“I love it. I love being here,” Shear said just before the first race. “I started working at this spot on opening day, 1962. They had offered me a job in mutuels, but I would have been behind a window, and people could smoke. That would have been like being in prison.”

Several fans, upon realizing Shear was back at work, came over to speak to him.

“Welcome back,” one woman said.

“John, you’re a true hero,” said another.

Santa Anita opened for its 75th season on Monday on what could not have been a nicer day. It was 72 degrees when the first race was run and the recent winds were gone, but their handiwork had left a spectacular backdrop, with the San Gabriel Mountains looming majestically, framed by a cloudless blue sky.

Santa Anita officials believed the ontrack crowd would top 30,000. Well before the first race was run, the parking lot nearest the clubhouse turn was full, and cars could be seen backed up on the westbound approach along Huntington Blvd. from downtown Arcadia. A number of those who had made it inside by then, many of them families with small children, grabbed their Santa Anita 2012 wall calendars, then took pictures near the Kingsbury Fountain and the bronzes of John Henry and Seabiscuit.

“It looks like we’ll have a nice crowd,” Shear said.

Minutes later, the unbeaten Ismene ($3.20) led from start to finish in the meet’s first race, the 2-year-old filly division of the $100,000 California Breeders’ Champion Stakes. Sent off as the 3-5 favorite following two prior victories, Ismene set fractions of 21.89 seconds for the opening quarter, 44.52 for a half-mile, and 1:08.75 for six furlongs en route to a final time of 1:21.61 for seven furlongs on the fast dirt track.

Ismene cruised home 2 3/4 lengths in front of Willa B Awesome, who was 1 3/4 lengths in front of third-place Warren’s Amber. Tangerine Tickle, Almost a Lady, and Belloma completed the order of finish.

“She’s very, very talented,” said winning rider Mike Smith. “I didn’t ask her to do much. She’s got a lot of room to improve.”

Bill Spawr trains Ismene for owner Steve Ferraro, who also bred the daughter of Tribal Rule. Spawr and Ferraro have brought Ismene along patiently, owing to her high-strung nature. She made her debut in August at Del Mar, then won the Anoakia Stakes during the fall meeting here in October.

“She sees things that aren’t there, but she’s getting better about those things,” said Spawr, best known as the trainer of Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Amazombie.