Kevin Shea has officially hung up his riding boots after both his neurosurgeon and doctor declared him unfit to race ride again due to the effects of wear and tear on his back.
Shea had a glittering 37 year career and will be remembered not only for his brilliance in the saddle but also his colourful personality. Fortunately the latter will not be lost to the industry as he is clearly enjoying his new role as an on course presenter.
He joined the South African Jockeys Academy in 1977 and rode his first winner in 1979 on the Des Rich-trained Druids Robe over 1200m at Greyville.
He was still an apprentice when landing his first Gr 1 winner on the Buller Benton-trained Have A Fling in the Holiday Inns at Turffontein. The horse landed a betting coup for one of the country’s biggest owners and punters, Cyril Hurvitz.
Shea, thanks to a pair of the finest hands in the game and peerless big match temperament, was at his best on top horses.
In the 2008 Vodacom Durban July he rode the Justin Snaith-trained Dancer’s Daughter for the first time and this powerful grey filly had over raced in her previous start when winning the Gr 1 Gold Challenge, so many pundits wrote her off, saying that from the wide draw over 2200m she would never settle. However, if anybody was going to be able to settle her it would be Shea and he duly relaxed her beautifully towards the back of the field, which as a handy sort she had never experienced before. She stormed up the straight to dead-heat with the great Pocket Power in one of the big race’s most thrilling finishes.
Shea’s other July win was also aboard a filly, the great Mike de Kock-trained Ipi Tombe, whom he regards as one of the best he has ever ridden.
He holds another De Kock-trained filly, Sun Classique, in equal regard. (she was formerly trained by Mike Bass)
Shea always enjoyed plenty of support and was associated with top trainers like Tony Furness, David Payne, Doug Campbell, David Goss, Mike De Kock and Duncan Howells.
However, his best years were undoubtedly with De Kock, and he played a particularly vital role for the master trainer in his overseas campaigns.
His first international Gr 1 win for De Kock was aboard Ipi Tombe in the Dubai Duty Free in 2003. Then in a memorable 2008 the pair combined to win the Gr 1 Dubai Sheema Classic with Sun Classique, the Gr 1 QE II Cup in Hong Kong with Archipenko and the Gr 1 Hong Kong Cup with Eagle Mountain. However, they also suffered one of the most disappointing moments of their respective careers that year when Archipenko was kept in a pocket in the Gr 1 Arlington Million and denied almost certain victory. Later in 2010, the pair combined to finish second in the world’s richest race, the $US million Dubai World Cup, with the South African-bred Lizard’s Desire, losing in a photo finish that took an age to decide.
Shea had a number of other stakes victories for De Kock overseas, including winning the Gr 2 Al Fahidi Fort five times.
He also rode for De Kock in the UK, which is not always a welcome environment for a foreign jockey. However, his gregarious and likeable personality enabled him to fit in easily and he reveled in the opportunity to experience the many different racecourses and the centuries of tradition behind their races. His most memorable moment over there was aboard Eagle Mountain when breaking the course record on the famous Rowley Mile course at Newmarket in the Gr 2 Joel Stakes over a mile. He also won the Gr 2 Summer Mile Stakes at Ascot on Archipenko. He rode in one of the world’s most famous races, the Ascot Gold Cup, and recalls the immortal four-time winner of this race Yeats running with his head in his chest while he was pushing his mount Thundering Star along to stay in touch coming up the hill from Swinley Bottom.
Shea’s skills were not blunted by age and, already in his fifties, he rode four Gr 1 winners last year, two aboard the Duncan Howells-trained Via Africa, one on the Joey Soma-trained Athina and one on the Howells-trained Same Jurisdiction.