Grafton trainer John Shelton

I didn’t expect John Shelton to answer his phone just before 8 am on Sunday morning (Oct 14th). When you’ve trained the winner of the inaugural Kosciuszko, and revelled in the post-race celebration into the wee hours, you’re entitled to be catching up on much needed sleep.

But, like all dedicated horse trainers John was well out of city limits, and on his way to Grafton where another twenty horses awaited his attention. The trainer was being chauffeured by his great mate, Vic Bennetts, a former top golfer and winner of an Australian PGA Championship in 1975. “I was far too excited to sleep, and just wanted to get home”, said John. “The whole experience was more than I could handle in one day, and will take a while to sink in. When that horse went past the post it was, beyond doubt, the greatest moment of my life”.

Image courtesy of Bradley Photographers - Victory salute from John Shelton.

Image courtesy of Bradley Photographers - Victory salute from John Shelton.

John watched the race at ground level, opposite the winning post with a clear view of the giant infield screen. Standing close by was his sister Lyn Evans who’d made the trip from Armidale, and John knew his eighty five year old mother Beryl, was watching at Glen Innes with her modest wager in place.

The family involvement was probably the catalyst for the flood of tears that caught John by surprise as Belflyer and Adam Hyeronimus flashed past the post. “It was all too much for me”, admitted the trainer. “Lyn’s presence, Mum’s support and the fact that my former apprentice was on board, reduced me to an emotional wreck”.

Image courtesy of Bradley Photographers - BELFLYER wins The Kosciuzsko.

Image courtesy of Bradley Photographers - BELFLYER wins The Kosciuzsko.

This surreal experience came, just one year after John received a phone call from managing part owners Troy Hogan and Rodney Rideout, who said their syndicate wanted to race the horse in NSW where prizemoney had escalated.

Belflyer’s career began in Victoria where he won three provincial races from eighteen starts, before being moved to Queensland in May 2016. He won another three in the sunshine state, including the 2016 Warwick Cup

He won six of his first ten starts after joining the Shelton stable, and that included his second Warwick Cup. Following a couple of unplaced runs

in May and early June, John decided to give him a “freshen up”, with the Ramornie Hcp in mind. He went under narrowly in the Listed Grafton sprint, and followed that with a luckless fourth at Doomben. He then finished a respectable third on the Gold Coast, after which John hatched a plan not to race him again until the Kosciuszko, hoping his Ramornie placing would attract the attention of slot holders.

His gamble paid off when Thad King, Richie Butterworth and Nathan Lavers won a slot, and chased Belflyer. Next assignment was to find a replacement for stable jockey Ben Looker who was committed to Victorem in the $1.3 million dollar race. John was delighted to offer the ride to Adam Hyeronimus, who had spent the first twelve months of his apprenticeship with the trainer. “We became very close mates during his time at Grafton, and we still communicate regularly”, said Shelton. “He took a while to hit his straps while under my care, but before long he was riding plenty of winners”.

Image courtesy of Bradley Photographers - Winners are grinners. Belflyer slot holders.

Image courtesy of Bradley Photographers - Winners are grinners. Belflyer slot holders.

A heavy nine track rating for the Kosciuszko was of some concern to John Shelton, as it was for many of the trainers with runners in the race. “Belflyer had won three races on soft tracks, but I really had no idea how he would cope with the conditions on Saturday”, said John. “I’m still at a loss to explain how he was able to let down the way he did, on that ground. Terrific effort by the horse, and by Adam who rode him with aggression and confidence”.

Only veteran racing men will recall that John Shelton began his life in racing as an apprentice jockey. He was based in Glen Innes, and rode on the Tablelands circuit for around two years, posting forty winners. “It’s probably a good thing that increasing weight halted my riding plans, because I was never going to threaten George Moore’s job at Tulloch Lodge”, reflected John.

He was attracted to the strong racing environment offered by Grafton, and settled in the Jacaranda city forty years ago. In those early days John was riding a lot of work for local trainers, and in that capacity got to know owner Ross Paine, a devoted and passionate racing man.

A few months earlier, Ross had purchased a group of yearlings in NZ, and was supervising their education in Grafton. John became the regular rider of a Riverton colt, who’d been the cheapest of the consignment. “In the first prep he couldn’t keep up with the others, and there was nothing about him that gave Ross a glimmer of hope”, recalled John. “Next time in, he got better with every gallop, and before long he was clearly the best of the group”.

Ross Paine called him Riverdale, and it’s now history that he went on to

race seventy eight times over a six year period. He won nine races, and was placed an amazing thirty times, for a prize money tally of $782,900 - a huge figure in the early 1980’s. He won two Gr 1 races, and was placed in another three.

John has had an enduring relationship with the Paine family, and to this day Ross’s son Brian is among his closest friends. Together, they’ve achieved wonderful results with a number of horses including Star Of Sequalo, winner of eight races, most of them on metro tracks in Sydney and Brisbane. “Star Of Sequalo’s dam Pemway Star was also very talented, winning two from three before going amiss”, recalled John.

The popular trainer has been remarkably consistent over a long period. He has no idea of his winner tally, but is proud of his many successes in the NRRA Trainer’s Premiership. He’s equally as proud of the achievements of apprentices who’ve worked under his tutelage. Adam Hyeronimus, Ben Looker, Casey Stanley, Anthony Allen, and Danny Wheeler have all spent valuable time with the respected trainer.

Image courtesy of Bradley Photographers - John with his former apprentice, Adam Hyeronimus.

Image courtesy of Bradley Photographers - John with his former apprentice, Adam Hyeronimus.

John has had some personal favourites among the horses he’s trained over the years. He likes to reflect on the achievements of horses like Sir Dan, Sircolo, High Octave, Lucky Meteor, and the very brilliant Mother’s Gift who gave him a long awaited win in the famous Ramornie Hcp in 2000, one of the grey mare’s fifteen wins. “Sircolo and High Octave were full brothers, and it was a special thrill when they both won at Eagle Farm on the same programme one day”, recalled John.

The breeding buffs were thrilled to see Belflyer win such an important race on Everest day. The gelding is by Bel Esprit, whose place in history is assured through the deeds of Black Caviar. He’s out of Flying Ruby, a six time winning daughter of Rubiton, whose Group 1 winning son Flying Artie is now at stud. Pedigree consultant Kristen Manning tells me, Belflyer’s grand dam Parkhill’s Flyer is a half sister to the champion Better Loosen Up.

John Shelton is aware Belflyer isn’t Better Loosen Up, but that doesn’t make him any easier to place. “He’d get the grandstand in anything on the Northern Rivers, so it looks like he’ll be a regular in Brisbane and Sydney”

Going into the Kosciuszko, Belflyer was certainly not regarded as a noted “wet tracker”, but after fifty five race starts he may be about to assume a new identity. Wherever he goes for his future racing, expect to see John Shelton looking up at the sky.