Mark Shean

published: 13 Oct 2014 in Personality profiles

Although his father and grandfather were jockeys, Mark Shean never considered that profession, although he knew he wanted to be involved in the racing industry in some capacity. So he put his memory for names and colours to good use and began calling races as a youngster, and then professionally from the time he was 16. Now he’s one of the country’s most respected race broadcasters, working for TVN in NSW.

IT is impossible these days to imagine racing being run without a commentary, yet for more than 100 years after Australia’s first meeting was conducted in Sydney’s Hyde Park there were no broadcasts.

A world first was achieved in 1924 when Arnold Treloar described a Port Adelaide program for radio station 5CL. The following year Mick Ferry had the honour of providing Sydney’s first race broadcasts, from Randwick, on 2FC. He was followed by the likes of Cyril Angles, Lachie Melville and the irrepressible Ken Howard, who called races at Randwick from a block of flats and at Rosehill from the Shell Oil Refinery when a ban was placed on racecourse broadcasting in the 1940s. Over the years since callers such as Geoff Mahoney, Ian Craig, Des Hoysted and John Tapp have added their names to the list of distinguished callers.

More recently it has been the turn of Mark Shean who is a man with racing in his blood. His father Jim was a jockey, his grandfather Fred Shean was one of the foremost jockeys of his era, and a great-uncle Jim Shean a highly respected trainer. However, Mark had no ambitions to become a jockey or a trainer. “I don’t think I ever thought about being a jockey, or for that matter a trainer,” Mark said, but with his interest in racing nurtured as a child it was not long before he decided to capitalise on his retentive memory for names and colours. He was still at school when he began practising race commentaries and this led to an appointment to call races in country NSW.

Over subsequent years Mark has continually refined his craft to the point where he was ready, willing and able to accept an opportunity that was presented to him when Thoroughbred Vision was launched. Since then he has earned nationwide acclaim in the way his predecessors did. Casting his mind back, Mark recalls that although a Sydney boy he had an initiation into the world of racing as a “three or four year-old” when the family visited a farm with Jim Shean.

“I hadn’t sat on a horse before but within a half an hour he had me jumping around on a pony,” Mark says of his great-uncle, who had jockeys such as George Moore, Neville Sellwood and Tommy Hill apprenticed to him. Later Mark developed a close relationship with his grandfather Fred Shean.

It was in 1938 that Fred, who was born at Banana in Queensland, etched his name in the annals of Australian racing industry by winning the Melbourne Cup on the 25/1 shot Catalogue. Although an eight year-old, Catalogue was racing so keenly approaching the mile that Fred allowed him his head and he dashed well clear. After hold a commanding lead two furlongs out Catalogue continued on to win by three lengths from Bourbon with Ortelle’s Star 2.5 lengths away third.

However that was only part of the story because, in the 1938-39 season, Fred also won the Caulfield Cup on Buzalong, the Epsom Handicap on King’s Head, the AJC Oaks on Sweet Myrna and numerous other feature races. On retiring from the saddle he held a trainer’s licence for only a few years, but remained an enthusiastic racegoer.

With racing instilled in his blood Mark recalls going racing from the age of “nine or 10”. “I suppose it was my heritage with my grandfather being a successful jockey, his brother Jim a successful trainer and my father Jim riding for a while. I’d go to the races with my father and my mother Nauma, and if they didn’t go I often go with my grandparents. Sometimes I’d even go to the races by myself on the train.”

Although having no desire to become a jockey Mark’s knew early on that his destination in life was to be involved in the racing industry. By the time he was about 14 he began to experiment with calling the races. “John Jeffs, who was the manager at Rosehill and Canterbury, was a family friend. John would occasionally open up an old disused box for me about a furlong from the winning post and I’d take a tape recorder and practise calling the races. Then I was lucky because I had a mate at school named Mark Boyd, and one of the best friends of the family was Geoff Mahoney.”

One of the most respected commentators in the business Geoff, who was renowned for his accuracy and his diction, had been appointed as the ABC’s race broadcaster in 1958. “Through Mark Boyd I’d give Geoff some tapes to listen to and he would give me a tip or two about the way to improve my calling, and Geoff was responsible for me getting my first job at Inverell. I don’t know the full story but Geoff said there was a position vacant and I was appointed.”

So in 1975, while a 16 year-old student at Waverley College, Mark began weekend journeys to Inverell, which is 670km north of Sydney, to call at the Saturday meetings. “I’d leave school and fly up there on a Friday night or I’d catch the overnight train to Tamworth,” he said. “I could have a sleeper or I might sit up all night, and from Tamworth I’d get a lift to Inverell with the stewards. On my first day at Inverell I was slotted in to call the Lightning Handicap and I was calling away when I realised the public address had broken down. It wasn’t much of a start to my race calling career.”

That led through to Mark becoming the caller at Glen Innes, another city in the New England region, where he would follow a similar schedule. “I loved going to Glen Innes because they really looked after me when I went up there. I would stay with a jockey Robert Kelly, who is the son of the famous jockey Rex Kelly, and he looked after me very well.”

He was still at school when he “got a job” calling at Orange and Bathurst. On leaving Waverley College Mark was still calling at those venues until an opportunity opened up calling the provincials races for Sydney radio station 2GB. “Bob Charley and Ken Callander were working at 2GB in hosting positions, but that all stopped when 2GB turned to talk back from being a sporting station, which left John Tapp and myself without positions at the station. Bob had approached me about doing form comments for the trials, which weren’t filmed then, so I began working for Bob’s publication The Midweeker.”

One of the characters of the Australian turf, Bob had from 1958 to about that time been in partnership with Clive Evatt jnr and Don Scott, betting as the “Legal Eagles”. Their system which was based on scientific study, had enabled them to harvest substantial winnings from bookmakers and agencies. Bob, of course, was to later become a chairman of the Australian Jockey Club and the Australian Racing Board. 

“I worked for Bob for several years and when he shut up shop he referred me to Mark Read, “ Mark said. Mark Read, who at 24 had been granted a Melbourne rails bookmaker’s licence by the Victoria Racing Club, was regarded as Australia’s biggest bookmaker. He had by that stage moved his base to Sydney where he was granted a licence by the AJC in 1980, and Mark remembers their office was in the basement of Boomerang which was then regarded as being the priciest house in Sydney. “I was just on the ground doing the form cards,” he said. “There were about eight or nine of us doing the form for Mark. 

There was no computer form at that stage and we had to do everything by hand.”

Mark missed the plunge Mark Read launched on Getting Closer in 1982, but he was there when Maniwreck and High Signal were victorious after being backed off the map. Estimations were that $1m was taken from the ring when Getting Closer, who was by Long Row (GB), won the STC Domain Stakes (1250m) at Canterbury. The following year another mammoth plunge was landed when Maniwreck, by Manihi, won an Improvers Handicap (1200m) at Canberra.

“Maniwreck was a big go,” Mark said. “It was funny because we all flew down to Canberra in a private jet because Mark didn’t want anyone to know he was going to the meeting. “All the cabs were booked in bodgie names and before the races he had booked an armoured car to pick up the money he won, he was that confident. Unfortunately we were spotted all together at the races. People put two and two together and the market was knocked off. We still got on for plenty, but not as much as we would have otherwise.”

Although Mark Read was holidaying in Venice, his commission agents struck again in August 1984 when the Century gelding High Signal was backed from 10/1 to 7/2 to win the River Rough Handicap (1200m) at Canterbury. Again it was estimated that $1m was taken from bookmakers fielding on the meeting.

After leaving Mark Read’s employ Mark began calling the barrier trials held in Sydney and dabbling in racehorse ownership, buying “one or two” yearlings a year. Soon after his marriage to Cathy (they have two sons Matthew, 22, and Adam, 18), Mark struck a jackpot when he purchased a colt who raced as Gold Regency. “We pulled off a bit of a plonk with him at a mid-weeker at Canterbury the day after Let’s Elope won the Melbourne Cup. We backed him for quite a bit of money.” That helped towards buying a filly by Luskin Star from the Bates Motel (USA) mare Reinforce (NZ) for $30,000 at the Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale in 1994.

Prepared by Tim Donnelly and racing as Show of Force she showed herself to be a classy performer as a two year-old. Following wins in Sydney at her first two outings she finished second to Millrich in the STC Sweet Embrace Stakes-Gr.3 (1200m) and third in the STC Magic Night Stakes-Gr.2 (1200m) at Rosehill. That stamped her as a chance in the Golden Slipper Stakes-Gr.1 (1200m), but Mark and Tim decided to bypass the Slipper to tackle the AJC Sires’ Produce Stakes-Gr.1 (1400m) at Randwick.

“We thought the Sires would be more suitable for her and we just missed out,” he said. “She was beaten a head and a head by Octagonal and Isolda.” Show of Force then went on to finish fourth behind Isolda, Octagonal and Pontal Lass in the AJC Champagne Stakes-Gr.1 (1600m). “She didn’t really come up as a three year-old so I sent her to stud.”

Show of Force demonstrated her worth as a broodmare by producing to a mating with Danehill Dancer (USA) the top class performer Atomic Force, whose victories featured the ATC The Galaxy-Gr.1 (1100m) and AURC Railway Stakes-Gr.1 (1200m). “She didn’t do a great deal as a broodmare early on, but then came along Atomic Force. I’d sold her before that in foal to Lion Hunter. She produced a filly and the bloke who owned her thought she was special after beating an open company horse in track work as an unraced two year-old but she broke down before she raced. Atomic Force came along after that.”

It was in 2005 when an opportunity was created for Mark to begin calling for TVN and on Sydney’s racecourses. “I was still calling the barrier trials and just about everyone was signed to Sky Channel when the war started over telecasting rights. I was about the only one who didn’t have an alignment to anyone so I was probably in the right spot at the right time.”

At the time TVN was established by the Victorian thoroughbred industry and Sydney’s two metropolitan clubs, its charter was to provide an alternative to Sky Racing. It was also said to be an attempt by the racing clubs concerned “to capture the valuable assets of racing media rights and leverage them to the benefit of racing”.

“It was a fairly traumatic period because we didn’t know whether we were working from one week to the next. There was a lot of political stuff going on with the black out and so forth, and no one knew how long it would be before Sky Channel came back on board. Everyone was just waiting to see how it all played out, but thankfully it was all finally resolved and the rest is history.”

Over the years since, the status of both TVN and Mark Shean have gone from strength to strength. TVN has developed two well-credentialled race day hosts in Bruce Clark in Melbourne, and Richard Callander in Sydney, while Mark, like Geoff Mahoney, is renowned for his accuracy and clear diction. “I do the videos of just about every horse who is running and do the form as well,” Mark says of his preparation. “It’s then about five or 10 minutes of sighting the horses in the mounting yard and on their way to the starting gates before each race.” However it is not always easy. Now that the mounting yard at Randwick is behind the stand he does not always have sufficient opportunity to study the colours. “It’s all right if you know the horses, but if you don’t it can be a problem,” he says. “There was one race at Randwick recently when I didn’t have a chance to focus on a horse until it was going into the barrier, and that’s really a bit late. Fortunately, everything worked out in the run.”

Two races he particularly remembers are the AJC T.J. Smith Stakes-Gr. (1200m) at Randwick won by Takeover Target in 2008 and Silent Achiever’s victory in this year’s renewal of ATC The Ranvet-Gr.1 (2000m) at Randwick. “Takeover Target’s win in the T.J. Smith sticks in my mind and I was pretty happy with the call of The Ranvet in March when Silent Achiever ran down Carlton House,” he said.

In addition to his calling duties Mark also presents Trials in Focus, where his quarter of a century of describing the hit-outs comes through to provide a valuable guide for punters to follow. He also appears as a panellist on the Sunday morning show Racing Review, where his perceptive and succinct comments provide a balance to what at times can be volatile outpourings from his fellow-panellists.

“We go back over the races and discuss a lot of issues, which I think makes it interesting,” he said, “but to tell you the truth I don’t enjoy the limelight and I’m not fussed about being in front of the camera. I’d rather just stay in my box and call the races.” n