Profiles

Fame for Hall

Former jockey and trainer Sean Hall had to leave horse racing after a serious accident but not before he bred a Canadian classics contender.

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By: Jennifer Morrison |

The last day of the Woodbine thoroughbred racing season in 2009 was supposed to be routine for Sean Hall. It was packing day for his annual trip south to Florida for the winter where he trained and rode his stable of horses.

But then one bad step while moving equipment changed that normal day into a life changing event for the English-born Barbadian horseman.

“I was trying to load these heavy horse mats for stalls into my truck. My horses had already left for Florida, but I slipped and landed badly. I hurt my shoulder and eventually needed surgery.” The rehab went well for Hall and after a year and a half he was looking to get back to riding his trainees. “I had to wait a long time to start to feel strong enough to get back on my horses.”

He was never able to get back on horses, however, as his injuries turned out to be more serious than initially thought. He was eventually told by doctors that he would have to find a new profession. While the news hit the 46-year-old hard he has found new hope in the form of a bay colt he bred from the only mare he owned. Pyrite Mountain, foaled just months after Hall’s dramatic fall, is a major contender for the Queen’s Plate on July 7 thanks to two stakes wins early in his career.

Once Bitten

Born and raised in England, Sean Hall took after his father, famous cricketer Wes Hall, and played that sport as a youngster. He also had a love for horses and racing, which he took with him to Barbados when his family moved there. Sports and schooling became too much for Hall to juggle as a teenager so he had to make a decision.

“My mom wanted me to take language classes so I dropped cricket, I could not do it all,” said Hall. “She was not happy that I stayed with the horses though.”

Like many young Barbadian teenagers, Hall started to hang around the Garrison Savannah racetrack with friends who wanted to learn how to ride. “On my first day of riding school at the Garrison, I was bitten by a horse in the chest. That did not go over well with my mother,” Hall laughed. As a “fearless, crazy kid” who loved the speed of the horses, Hall did well as a jockey, even travelling to India and Australia for some seasons before he hung up his tack in Barbados in 1988.

Ontario Bound

“I was actually too tall, my weight was killing me. I decided I wanted to try training,” explained Hall. “But I had learned all I could in Barbados and wanted to go somewhere else.” That somewhere else was Ontario and when he attended the wedding of his friend Ricky Griffith, a fellow Barbadian jockey, he could not wait to get back.

Hall got jobs working with Woodbine trainers Trevor Swan, Ian Howard and then with Laurie Silvera as an assistant trainer. In 1994, when it appeared that the Barbados work permits were not going to be renewed, Hall figured he would never be back.

“I thanked Mr. Silvera for all he had done for me and taught me and told him to visit Barbados one day, and he took me up on it. He wanted to know how come there were so many talented horse people coming from such a small island.”

Hall’s father, the Minister of Tourism, helped arrange the trip for Silvera, and in no time Hall was training a horse in Barbados for him. Hall’s training career took off from there and just a year later he was celebrating a major win when Rambrino, a horse owned by the legendary English horse owner Robert Sangster, won the Barbados Gold Cup. Hall became the youngest trainer ever to win the race.

“That was a great win for me,” said Hall. “I watched Mr. Sangster put the Gold Cup trophy in his case with all those other trophies (from horses such as The Minstrel, Sadler’s Wells, etc.). Sangster then helped Hall realize his dream of returning to Canada, sending him there with three horses including the good handicap runner Social Charter. Hall sent out that colt to win the Eclipse Stakes at Woodbine in 1999.

Hall built up a small Woodbine racing stable with bargain yearling purchases and claims. In the fall of 2000, he was eyeing a filly named Gold Lined, who was moving down sharply in class from $40,000 claiming to $12,500. “I overheard another trainer talking about how this filly was worth the money not just as a racehorse but as a broodmare. I thought that I couldn’t go wrong to try and claim her.” Hall was not the only one who submitted a claim slip for Gold Lined that day but he won the shake and took Gold Lined home.

The filly won a race for Hall the following season but then developed ankle chips and was retired. Against the advice of many of his co-workers, he decided to try the breeding game and sent the mare to the court of Whiskey Wisdom at Windfields Farm. That first foal, Wisdomisgold, won the Juvenile Stakes at Fort Erie for Hall.

From there, Gold Lined became a resident at Gardiner Farms and produced a series of colts, all with pleasant personalities and gentle demeanors. With the help of the late Dr. Mike Colterjohn, who was managing the Gardiner Farms stallions, Hall picked out selected sires for his mare and then sold the offspring at the yearling sale for big bucks. One of them, a Peaks and Valleys colt, brought $160,000 in 2008.

“Mike believed in me and believed in my mare,” said Hall. “I owe so much to him, he told me she would do good for me and he was right.”

A year later, an Old Forester colt from Gold Lined brought $50,000 at the Woodbine sale, just two months before Hall’s tragic accident.

Silver Linings Made of Gold

In 2011, just when Hall felt he might be strong enough to make a comeback, he started suffering from headaches and tingling in his arms and hands. Multiple doctors did thorough check-ups that revealed nothing, until Hall met the right specialist.

“No one could tell me what was wrong until I went to a specialist,” said Hall. “He surprised me when he said I had spinal cord damage and if I don’t get surgery right away I could be in a wheelchair in less than five years. He told me he could not guarantee my safety if I went near horses again.”

Hall had his C5 and C6 vertebras fused and clamped together which solved his symptoms, but his heart was broken as his life with horses was over.

“The doctor said I better find another job. I didn’t feel good at all, horses were all I knew. I had to sell everything: my equipment, barn stuff, even my mare, Gold Lined… everything… and return to Barbados.”

When he left, Gold Lined’s foal of 2010, a colt by Silent Name (Jpn), was in training with Mark Frostad for a syndicate of 38 owners headed by Frank Stronach. Too heartbroken, Hall didn’t keep tabs on the offspring of his mare until December 2012 when a Canadian friend sent him a text message that a horse he had bred had just won a stakes race.

“My friend said Pyrite Mountain won the Kingarvie Stakes. I was like ‘who?’, I could not figure out who that horse was.” So his friend had to explain that the colt was Gold Lined’s two-year-old, the one he had sold for $50,000 just the year before.

Hall has not let Pyrite Mountain off his radar since, following the colt’s progress as he went from a budding star two-year-old to a Queen’s Plate favourite. The colt won the Wando Stakes on May 5, defeating Horse of the Year and previous Plate favourite, Uncaptured. “He has made me feel very good; I get lots of messages and phone calls.”

“It has really helped me feel better about my life,” said Hall, who won 52 races and $1.7 million in purses in his training career including three wins in that final year. “Things haven’t been that good but following this horse, it’s almost like I share in the ownership of him.”

Hall now has several projects in the works in Barbados and has a more positive outlook about his future, even without the horses. He discovered he has a talent for songwriting and has had more than a dozen songs recorded with singer John Glock. One of his newest songs is called Pyrite Mountain, dedicated to the colt he bred.

“It’s a song about how he came out of nowhere and fighting battles. The first line is ‘Been to heaven, felt the heat of hell’.”

Hall is also working on a project with another former Woodbine horseman Jono Jones to teach budding jockeys their skills before they come to Canada.

Hall admits that losing his livelihood has been very difficult for him and much of the Woodbine racing community does not even know what happened to him and where he went. Of course, if Pyrite Mountain wins the Plate, there’s a good chance he will have some more glory moments in the sport that he loves.