For Woodbine jockey Justin Stein, who recently won the Queen’s Plate with Strait of Dover, and his wife, Renee, family, faith and a love for everything horses brought them together and has kept them even closer.
It was by no means a typical romantic scene nearly nine years ago in Barriere, a town of just over 1,200 people in central British Columbia, when the cowboy at heart, who has 705 career wins, met the city girl, who was working two jobs as a psychiatric nurse.
They were neighbours, but hadn’t met in the three months Renee had moved in to the adjacent 10-acre farm, her dream of owning horses on a quaint spot of land having finally coming true.
On August 2, 2003, tragedy struck Barriere, in the form of a massive forest fire.
“I arrived at my home to find that an evacuation order had been issued and the fire was only four kilometres away,” recalls Renee. “I was informed by a truckload of people trying desperately to move horses to a safer location. It turned out the young adults were my next-door neighbours.”
People lower down in the valley were evacuating their horses to farms higher up.
When the Louis Creek sawmill exploded, families up the mountainside worked feverishly to evacuate dozens of the frightened animals.
Justin and his younger siblings were in a truck holding onto lead ropes attempting to run horses down to safer locations. The fire was cresting over the hills as people, some in trucks and some on foot, were working to rescue their horses by running them literally miles to safer locations.
“Miraculously, the fire jumped our road and burned out less than a block from my new home and Justin’s parents’ home,” remembers Renee. “There is no reason other than a miracle that this fire stopped. Dozens of houses just down our road had been burnt to the ground, yet ours remained intact.
“As I would later find out, the handsome horse rescuer was Justin. He was working as a forest firefighter at the time and I was later blessed with getting to know his family and especially him.”
Their first date didn’t take place over a candlelit, four-course dinner. But in the eyes of both, it was perfect.
“Being a city kid, I thought there possibly could not be anything more attractive than a cowboy in wranglers breaking a horse next door,” offers Renee. “He won me over.”
The pair was engaged four months later. At the same time, Justin began to entertain the idea of becoming a jockey like his father, uncle and grandfather had done before him. He loved his life as a cowboy growing up and missed being around his ‘best friends,’ the horses.
After working horses in Kamloops for two months, a horseman told him ‘he might have something’ and suggested he move to Vancouver to pursue a career as a jockey.
Renee sold her animals and rented out her beloved farm to support Justin in pursuing his dream.
“It meant a lot to me to have that support,” says Justin. “You don’t know how things will turn out, but Renee stood behind me 100 per cent.”
Within four months, he was riding at Hastings Racetrack in Vancouver, and winning. The kid could ride.
After winning four races, along with 15 top-three finishes as an apprentice in 2004, including his first victory on August 28 with Mayne Stating, Justin dominated the Hastings standings one year later.
He was the runaway leading rider with 148 victories, eclipsing the Hastings apprentice record of 123 winners set by Dave Wilson in 1994. His closest competition had 104 wins.
When the 2005 meet ended in Vancouver, Justin headed east to Woodbine. In 97 mounts, he won 13 races at the Toronto oval, including the prep for the Valedictory Stakes with longshot Lettherebejustice.
Justin, whose year was also highlighted by the birth of his first son, Owen, was also named as a finalist for both the 2005 Sovereign Award (Canada’s Top Apprentice) and the Eclipse Award (North America’s Top Apprentice). His 23 per cent win average was 10th best in North America.
When the Woodbine campaign concluded, he flew back to British Columbia. Soon after, Justin and Renee were married.
“We decided to elope and were married in a little stone church in the winter in the middle of the Rocky Mountains by candlelight,” recollects Renee. “Our honeymoon was an incredible snowboarding adventure which suited us to a tee. One month later, we packed a mattress, fold-up crib, a chair and a few suitcases into a pull trailer and left B.C. for the chance at making it in Toronto. We never looked back.”
In 2006, Justin recorded 109 wins at Woodbine, good enough to rank fourth in the colony. He was also a finalist for the second consecutive year as Canada’s Top Apprentice.
From 2007-2010, he would win 67, 80, 71 and 58 races, respectively.
Although his numbers dipped, Justin’s resolve didn’t.
“The stress and strain of what he does isn’t something that’s easy to relate to,” offers Renee. “It’s important for us to be there for one another in the tough moments. Being a jockey isn’t easy in so many ways. But he isn’t the type to give up.”
Justin has become accustomed to the highs and lows of racing.
“One minute, you’re winning a big race and the next, it’s a disappointing result,” notes Justin. “You have to keep believing in yourself.”
That perseverance would pay off in the form of 102 wins at Woodbine in 2011, a campaign that saw him finish fourth in the standings.
“It was crazy last year,” says Justin. “I did keep track of the number of wins I had. I keep the programs from the big racing days in the calendar, the Queen’s Plate, in the summer, and the big races like the Woodbine Mile and Canadian International, that take place in the fall. I’ll look at them only on those days to see where I am. In 2010, it was a slow year. Last year, I could see the big improvement.”
There were plenty of reasons to celebrate.
He took the Eclipse Stakes with fan favourite Fifty Proof, the Kenora with Quick Code, the Labeeb with Stormy Lord and the Overskate with Gypsy Ring, recording $4,961,691 in purse earnings and posting 326 top-three finishes at the Toronto oval.
Woodbine-based trainer Ian Black handed Justin the reins of Stormy Lord for September’s $250,000 President’s Cup at Parx in Philadelphia. The son of Stormy Atlantic, bred in Ontario by his owner, Kinghaven Farms, won the turf race by 1 1/4 lengths.
It was yet another memorable moment in a year of many.
“When I looked at one of the programs in September, I saw there was a chance to hit 100 wins,” recalls Justin. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d get there. But I was a better rider than I was in 2010. Confidence counts for a lot and I think that’s what people saw.”
His family also saw more of him.
Long before Mayne Stating won that $7,000 claiming race on a hot summer’s day, Renee knew there would be sacrifices that came with the sport.
On most days during Woodbine’s 167-day Thoroughbred meet, Justin is up long before his three sons, out the door before the sun comes up, home a couple of hours before it’s time for everyone to turn their lights out.
Yet, in spite of the demands of his career, Justin, Renee and their three sons Owen, Jeremy and Elias (they are also looking to adopt a child in the near future) find strength through stability in their family life.
It was something Neal Wilson, Justin’s jockey agent, took notice of right away when he took over his book in 2011.
“He’s just a good kid who loves doing what he does,” praises Wilson. “In terms of riding, his patience and confidence in the horses are his biggest assets. Morally, he has a respect for everybody, his family and everyone at the racetrack. Whether he’s riding for someone who has two horses or 200, he treats everyone the same way. You can’t teach that as an agent. That’s just who he is.”
In a sport where a 20 per cent win average is equivalent to batting .300 in baseball, Justin can put a day on the racetrack, regardless of the outcome, into perspective.
“My family life, it’s perfect,” acknowledges Justin, who points to his victory with Gypsy Ring in the Overskate as one of his most cherished wins in 2011. “There was a little more stress because we were doing so well, but when I came home, we did things together. We had a lot of fun.”
Whether he makes a trip or two to the winner’s circle, gets nosed out at the finish line, or winds up crossing the wire last, at the end of each racing day, during his 30-minute drive home to Caledon, the 32-year-old rider reminds himself of what does represent a sure thing.
“Life away from home can be hectic, full of ups and downs. At home, it’s just the opposite.”
A trip to Guatemala over the winter, where Justin was part of a group from his local parish that traveled to the South American country to help build a church, once again gave him time to reflect on family.
“It made me very grateful for a lot of things in my life, where I’m from, my wife and children, for what I am able to have,” says Justin. “Everyone was friendly, but it’s tough to see…a lot of people have nothing. You come away from the experience a better person.”
Now, his focus is on the 2012 Woodbine campaign.
“I went into it with a lot of confidence,” he states. “I feel as though I have everything in my life that I could ever want or need.”
He also wears his heart on his sleeve, so to speak.
“My whole left arm is pretty much covered in tattoos,” says Justin. “I have three pieces on my right arm. My wife’s name is just over my heart. I have my dog tattooed on my left calf, he’s a border collie. I have lots. I can’t put a number on it.
“Every once in a while I get tired of the pain of getting tattoos and I’ll take a year off, but then I’ll get hungry for one,” he continues. “I’d like to get something for my boys, for my job, things that are significant to me. Maybe something for my belief and faith in Jesus.”
Win or lose, Renee is proud of who her husband is, on and off the track.
“He has a fearlessness about him where he faces everything head-on. But he does everything with a strong work ethic, strong faith, strong morals and honourably. I applaud that.”