Justin Stein’s first ride back after a three-year absence was, in his words, “overwhelming.”
The moments will live a lifetime: how he got on six horses on the Woodbine backstretch on Sunday morning, May 12, and then headed home to the Pine Valley Training Centre about 20 minutes away, where he ran five kilometres around and around the indoor training track.
In the jock’s room, he walked straight to his old locker – and then realized it wasn’t his any longer. Time had compressed, somehow. He found his new treasure house, a new start.
He didn’t realize how many people were happy to see him back at Woodbine. There were so many warm welcomes. He had one mount on this first day – a 6-year-old mare, Real Coal, not the favourite by any means – in the ninth race on a bone-chilling day, when the winds picked up and the rains began to fall most unforgivingly as he went out onto the track. Still, aboard the mare, he noticed everything as he went out, smiling for a soaked photographer in winter garb. He says he takes nothing for granted any more.
As he rounded the final turn in the lead, a whoop went up from the stands from some brave souls who confronted the weather, cheering his name loudly. He did not win, of course. Real Coal tried hard, but tired. And Stein’s legs shook. But it meant he was back, thanks to trainer Mike Mattine, the first to put him back on a horse in a race. When Mattine entered Real Coal, Stein still hadn’t worked a horse in three years.
He’s finding that he’s picking up work from the same trainers who used him before. And it didn’t take him long to win his first race. On the very next racing day, on his fourth start back, Stein won by a length on 3 to 1 shot Jail Time for trainer Paul Buttigieg, who had often used Stein in the past.
“I feel super grateful to be back,” Stein said. “I didn’t feel any pressure. I felt like I was going to do my job again. I have no words to describe this wonderful huge feeling that I cannot describe.”
It’s not too late for Justin Stein, 39.
He departed Woodbine three years ago with his family for a non-racing adventure, just as his career was unfolding: a win in the 2012 Queen’s Plate (Strait of Dover) that everybody saw coming, a smashing victory in the 2015 Oaks (Academic) that nobody saw coming. And then he was gone, a poof of smoke where his tack had been in the jock’s room and a forwarding address that really didn’t exist.
He went west, this fearless young man. He was heading for a plot of land in the British Columbia mountains to live off the grid with his family of four boys and wife Renee and a herd of goats. He sold everything and drove for days. “Sort of like a modern-day wagon train,” he recalled. “Like the pioneers in the early 1800s out west, looking for something different, adventure.
“Adventure would sum it up in one word,” he said. “I would say ‘adventure’ encompasses a lot. And not necessarily always good. Adventure is like challenge. Like facing serious adversity.”
Now Stein is back alone, (he and his wife are in the midst of a divorce) realizing that he was far too young to retire and that the rush of riding had never left him. “I miss racing, man alive,” he said at the Pine Valley Training Centre, where he lives in a humble little apartment that he has resourcefully scrubbed up. “Every day, I missed racing. I was too young to retire. But I have come back before it’s too late.”
To get to this point in time, Stein has lived a wagonload of lifetimes in a short time. It started with that trip out west, by truck and trailer. “It took a week to get out,” he said. “I had a breakdown on the way. I fixed it on the side of the road. I had my tools all packed where I could get to them in the trailer.”
Before he even left Caledon, Ont., he was forced to off-load a lot of belongings, have them put in storage, then shipped out later. He realized the little wagon train wouldn’t have made it out of town with the entire load.
The last drive up to the new nest was the most frightful. The trek was all uphill, into the mountains. It took two hours to creep the distance. “I wasn’t sure we were going to make it because we had catastrophic, critical mechanical problems with the truck,” Stein said.
“But it got us there. And then it promptly died.”
They had made it to their summit on May 9. That first night was brutally cold, up in that elevation. It didn’t feel like spring.
Living in the mountains was fun, Stein admitted. “It was nice.” But the reality of it made him figure that it would have been far nicer to visit and play than try to work and live in it. The environment was harsh.
For their first winter in their new home, Stein didn’t have the floor of the house insulated yet. At minus 30 to 35 degrees Celsius, Stein said that water would instantly freeze if you spilled it on the floor. “Instantly,” he said. “It was insane. So the fire was ripping all the time. We were wearing shoes.”
During the winter, the mountain roads in winter were “deadly,” Stein said. “You’d see multiple cars in the ditch in the winter. Black ice. But it’s deadly even in the summer.”
When they first moved to their site, they lived in a large tent. Stein put a floor in it. “It was just like a small cabin,” he said. “Really small. We cooked outside and we had a big trailer that we used as a kitchen. Five months later, we were in the house.”
So yes, Stein built a house. Himself. He had never done this before, although he had constructed a shed on his farm property near Caledon, Ont. It was a challenge, but Stein learned a lot. “I know I could build a really good house now,” he said.
The main floor was 960 square feet, with an upper floor slightly smaller. Each challenge seemed daunting, but the Steins worked through it. Putting tin on the roof was very difficult because it was at such a steep pitch, like a 45-degree angle. “And it was tin, so you were going to slide,” he said.
But he figured it out. He’d do it differently next time. And better, he said.
He had never installed windows before. And he had to figure out how to build a chimney system for his wood stove.
For hydro, the family had a generator. When the temperature dropped to minus 30 Celsius, Stein would bring the generator inside the house and keep it by the stove. Then he would take it outside and start it, to help warm up the tractor’s block heater. He didn’t often have to fire up the tractor over winter, but it came in handy to move hay. It was an old tractor. “It wasn’t a good piece of technology,” he said. “You couldn’t rely on it all the time.”
A source of income was to have been the large herd of goats they had bought: 180 altogether, 110 of them breeding stock. Looking back on it now, Stein said it was a huge, huge mistake to start out with so many goats. “That was me going into an idea that I hadn’t really thought about,” he said. The venture proved costly. “We had a lot of predation,” Stein said. “Cougar kills. They were picking away at our herd once in a while. Who knows how many times they had been chased off by my dogs?”
He also lost 25 per cent of his herd, just through lack of knowledge. After a year at the place, he was ready for his first live crop. But the goats had a selenium deficiency because there wasn’t enough of that mineral in the soil in that area of the mountains. “We weren’t aware how bad,” he said.
So the females aborted a lot of their babies, even though some of them were almost full term. He ended up with about 20 live babies, maybe less. They ended up being bottle-fed.
The goats were unexpectedly zealous eaters, too. Stein felt lucky to have a border collie on his side. He was swarmed once by the goats while he was trying to feed them. It’s more alarming than it sounds. “I had to drop the bag of feed and literally crawl away on the goats’ backs,” he said. “’If I fell down, I’d be trampled to death. I’ve seen them do it. They trample each other to death. They are brutal when they want to eat. They’ll take a run at it. They will launch on top of other goats if there is no room to put their head down. They always eat like they are starving to death, no matter what.
“They used to make me feel so anxious. I thought I had to feed them quick. But then I realized they can just wait,” he said. His collie would pin them in a corner so he could spread the feed. “She loved it,” Stein said.
“I finally got it down to where we had some harmony on the farm, what I was working towards, building that farm up so that we could exist in peace with the animals and they could exist in peace with each other, and it wasn’t stressful to survive,” Stein said.
“That’s what it felt like in the mountains for me,” he said.” It had just been like a struggle to survive, physically. It was ten times harder than it should have been.”
He’s talking about the water (They boiled their water. They needed to drill a well on the property, but it cost too much to drill a well there. They ran out of money and they didn’t want to borrow more.). And food. Getting up and down their driveway. Being able to drive around the property. And the snow. And the mud. “This is something you can’t describe,” he said. “People have to see how challenging the mud is this time of year. There were spots I’d have to stop driving. You can’t. You’d just wreck the road in your vehicle.”
Unwillingly, Stein was twice dragged down his driveway backwards while toting a horse trailer. “We were just along for the ride,” he said. “We were just not making this hill.”
He had to get a log skidder to drag the horse trailer up. It was an enormous piece of machinery. Stein also logged his property, partly to build pasture. He could make money out of logging. The timber market was brisk because of all of the forest fires in British Columbia.
Stein said the forest fires raging through the province were actually quite far away from his farm. They were never threatened. Stein, who has survived a forest fire before, was quite ready to fight the fire around his property. He had equipment. Fortunately, he was in a good location, his house surrounded by marsh land. Because there was a lot of open ground, there was less timber to fuel a fire, he said. And his tin roof wouldn’t catch fire from burning embers.
“We never had anything like that to worry about,” he said. “I’ve been through it before in 2003. So I was ready. I made sure I was ready. I had my plan. I had an evacuation plan.”
One goat did die from smoke inhalation, he said. She had already been suffering from pneumonia, and her lungs were probably already scarred.
“The problem with goats is that once you notice something is wrong, it’s too late,” Stein said. “They are worse than horses.” He began to sell them off to make the herd more manageable, but that wasn’t lucrative. “Farming is a wonderful idea, but it’s hard,” he said. “Nowadays farms are corporations. “
For the last year that Stein was in B.C., he worked full-time at construction. “I’ll do whatever it takes,” he said. “I liked building.”
He worked for a ranch that had four guest cabins, cursed with problems of freezing water in the winter. Stein had to work lying on his back in a small crawl space beneath the cabins – no room to move – with a shovel, as he tried to carve out space to build a one-foot wall to solve the problem. After the first one, he figured out the best way to do it. “I was just left on my own,” Stein said. “I’ve never done anything like that before. They never complained.”
The farm is also where his thoroughbred adoption (and former mount), Stormy Lord is staying until Stein can bring him east. He’s currently recuperating from a deep cash in a leg suffered last November. He has a horse whisperer, Janice Jarvis, at his side. She’s magical at managing Stormy Lord’s horrific injury. “I’ve never seen anyone manage a horse with an injury like Storm’s without [tranquilizers] or a twitch or anything,” Stein said. “He just stands there. That’s how good she is with a horse. If I tried to do it, it’s a problem.” The vet bills for him have added up, but he will never forsake Stormy Lord. He’s currently happily living with a herd of horses and will return to Ontario when he has healed.
Stein also worked for an investment company, and learned all sorts of new building skills. He was put in charge of siding a two-story building with steel. It took a month.
In short, the goat enterprise was “an epic fail,” said Stein. “But that’s what brought me back here and got me prioritizing, and focusing in on what I want to do.”
Stein said he missed racing so badly, that during the winter of 2017 and 2018, he bought a snowmobile, a really fast snowmobile. “I needed to ride something really, really fast again,” he said. “I would have these flashbacks, some of the most fun races I rode. I just can’t forget that stuff.”
He can’t help but remember his Queen’s Plate win. He sees himself flying down the homestretch with Strait of Dover in the lead all the time. He still remembers his tunnel vision. “It was black all around except down the stretch and I vaguely heard the roar, and there was just this feeling of unbelief that this really happened,” he said. “If I think about Strait of Dover, my heart will start pounding.”
He still possesses Strait of Dover’s ashes. The horse died in 2013 after surgery to repair a twisted large colon and never got to repeat his stunning Plate triumph.
Strangely enough, Stein replays in his mind many rides on lesser horses in lesser races, just the same. He remembers a horse in his first year of race riding called Mandy Tamby. “She was a little filly and I went up the fence and we won,” Stein said. “But it was so tight, I bounced off the fence and the other horse. I just barely squeezed through. Those are things you can’t forget. These things, that’s what I live for. It makes me feel alive.”
The junket home to Ontario was another epic tale. He threw everything he had into the back of his pickup truck. He’s grateful that someone gave him a topper for the box of his pickup truck, making it safe and secure, especially for a late winter trip cross-country. Stein built a frame for a little bed in the back seat of his truck so he could sleep on the way. “It’s faster than checking into a hotel and then checking out,” he said. It was comfy, better than sleeping on a seat, he said.
It took some time to just get out of British Columbia. He and many others had to sit for two hours on a highway while workers cleared out some avalanches. It took him about a day to get out of B.C.
“The roads were bad,” he said. “I drove across Alberta and Saskatchewan. I think I made it to Manitoba the second day.
“But Winnipeg was a nightmare, driving, because Winnipeg had lots of whiteouts. You don’t want to be there, but you know it’s eventually going to end, so you just keep going. There is nowhere to stop. It was just an ocean of white and blowing snow. You can’t see anything.”
The good news was that the roads in Manitoba are straight. “No corners, really, right?” Stein said. He crept along at 40 miles an hour, peering through the windshield, wondering where the road was.
When he made it to Thunder Bay, his truck started to act up, most notably the four-wheel drive mechanism and the brakes. “The four-wheel drive was doing some weird stuff,” Stein said. “It was trying to engage, but it wasn’t engaging. And it was making some bad grinding noises.”
He fiddled with it and got it to work properly and was on the last leg to Caledon. He hit Parry Sound where he was to stay in a house, but didn’t want to enter at such a late hour. He put on the brakes – and found he had none.
“Wow,” he said to himself. “That sucks.”
He parked in a spot where he could sleep for the night, wondering how he would have to deal with these problems the next morning. He was only two hours away from home.
But when he awakened the next morning, he found his brakes were magically working. “My truck is not very happy these days,” he said. “The power brakes don’t really go, but you lose power,” he said. He was using both feet.
“Poor truck,” Stein mused. “She’s had a rough life. She worked HARD on that mountain on that farm. Got beat up bad.
“It’s only six years old. But it’s a good truck. It’s come through a lot for me. I don’t expect it to stay sound. I’ll patch her up once in a while.”
All in all, Stein figures he has developed a better value system because of his odysseys. He didn’t think he had taken things for granted, but he did. But he knows he can change that. Coming across Canada in a fussy pickup truck afforded him a lot of time to think and process the past three years. “You are only in your own head and there were a lot of emotions, a lot of disbelief, a lot of excitement, a lot of processing,” he said.
Everything Stein has learned from his three-year sojourn away from the track has taught him well. “The challenges that came with [construction], really taught me that I could pretty well think my way through anything,” Stein said. “You can. For every problem, there is a solution. There is no can’t in my vocabulary. I’ll fail, but I will try again. Nothing will stop me.
“I’m not afraid of failure. I work hard enough. I’m afraid of not rising up to the challenge.”
Stein said he felt like giving up many times over the past few years. “But that is not an option,” he said. “What are you going to do? Crawl into a hole and forget about it? It doesn’t work that way.
“I know I learned a lot out there. Every day was learning. I’m a life apprentice. That’s what I feel like. I’m just trying to collect as much information to improve this data base up there,” he said, pointing to his noggin. It’s always a work in progress, for anyone.