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Jockey comes clean on horse racing’s dark side

Superstar jockey Shane Sellers escaped an abusive upbringing to reach the upper echelons of horse racing, but the dark side of the sport for Sellers included wrestling with an eating disorder linked to the industry’s weight requirements. Here's an excerpt from his autobiography, “Freedom’s Rein.”
/ Source: TODAY

Superstar jockey Shane Sellers escaped an abusive upbringing to reach the upper echelons of horse racing, finding community in his fellow athletes and meeting his soul mate and future wife in the process. But the dark side of the sport for Sellers included wrestling with unresolved anger issues and an eating disorder linked to the industry’s weight requirements, which he eventually overcame. Here's an excerpt from his autobiography, “Freedom’s Rein.”

Chapter 1
Most kids run through their houses for fun. I used to run through my house to get away from the cockroaches. My childhood home was the kind of place that you would see on a TV show that makes fun of rednecks. The house itself was tiny; so small that there was barely room to sleep. It consisted of a decent sized living room that led to a long kitchen. To the left of the kitchen was my parents’ room. Through their room was the bedroom that I shared with my three siblings. Three boys and a girl, all living in one room. It’s not like it was a big room, either. My younger brother Ryan and I shared a bed, my older brother Keith had his own bed, and my little sister Kristy had her own bed. Cramming three beds into that tiny room didn’t help things any. And with a 12 year age difference from my oldest brother Keith to my youngest sister Kristy, that situation was just plain weird as were the rest of our lives. The second we would come from our room and turn the lights on, little bitty roaches would scatter around and run all over the house. They mostly stayed in the kitchen, creeping out of the cabinets, where they hoped to find a bit of food. The funny thing was that there really wasn’t any food in my kitchen or anywhere else in my house for that matter. My constantly rumbling stomach could testify to that fact.To be fair, it’s not that I was starving; I was just hungry for something different. All of us were. But even though we couldn’t afford gourmet meals and we couldn’t dine out at the best restaurants, my mother Glenda never let us go hungry. She was a great woman and she always took great care of us kids. We all respected her for that and we still do. She’s the glue that’s kept our family together and we love her for all she did.My mom always had something for us to eat, even if it wasn’t all that good. We spent many nights eating my not-so-favorite meal, rice and eggs. And that dish is exactly what it sounds like: white rice covered by two or three eggs from our chicken coop. When I used to collect eggs from our chickens, sometimes I dreamed of bringing a chicken in the house and preparing the chicken to eat, instead. I imagined those breasts, wings, and thighs, just waiting for us to devour them. Then I imagined how hungry we would be if we chose one nice meal over years of eggs, and sat down to eat my eggs and rice.Of course, we loved meat and we ate it whenever we could. Sometimes we just didn’t have a very practical way of getting that meat.

Some nights my dad would go poaching, also known as outlawing, to get us whatever kind of meat he could find. Since it was illegal to poach in Louisiana, the last thing he wanted was for the game wardens to hear his gunshots. He had more than enough problems with our state’s authorities as it was and there was no need to make matters any worse. So my dad’s philosophy was to shoot something, grab it, stick it in the car, and get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.

He would creep around the local waterways robbing other people’s crab traps, and sometimes he went poaching for geese. It wasn’t easy for him to secure a whole family’s worth of food illegally, but fortunately, being sneaky was the one thing my dad was really good at.

And in one of the few things we did together as a family, my father frequently brought along some of us kids for the illegal ride.

When you outlaw for food, you learn that animals know almost as much about securing meals as people do. For instance, rabbits head onto quiet roads to feed when it rains outside. And where the rabbits went, our hungry stomachs were sure to follow.

All the men in my family would pile into the station wagon and get ready to hunt. Granted, my dad was the only one who actually hunted, but he had no qualms about bringing me, my brothers, and some of our cousins along for the ride. Not only did he lack qualms, but he made a game out of it. My dad would turn to my uncle with a big grin and say, “Hey Stanley, it’s a good night. Come on, man, let’s go kill some rabbits.”

So that’s exactly what we did.

Ever cautious of the game wardens, my uncle drove along the back roads, careful not to call attention to himself. My dad sat in the passenger’s seat with a gun between his legs, ready to make his move at any moment. As we drove along the rain slicked back roads, we watched for any rabbits that searched for their own dinners. Before we could even spot a rabbit, my dad was already on the move. With the car moving at 15 miles per hour, he would open his door, aim, and shoot. Then someone would throw the rabbit carcass into the back of the car and we would keep on going.

That’s just the way it went. My dad would shoot a rabbit or two and throw them in the back of the beat up station wagon. Then my uncle would rush deeper into the back roads where my dad would shoot a couple more rabbits. Again, we would speed off. By the end of our trip, we could rush away from the back roads with 20 or 30 dead rabbits in the car.

The whole way home our hearts would pound. Not just for the thrill of the kill and not just because of the adrenaline rush we got from doing something wrong, but also because we knew that we would be able to eat the rabbits if we got away with our actions.

When we walked in my house with our hearts still pounding, we would get ready to skin, gut, and prepare the rabbits for dinner. The worst part of this process came when we opened up the rabbits. I’ve smelled a lot of things in my life and none of them are as rancid or foul as the smell of an open rabbit. I don’t know what makes them smell as bad as they do, but when I was a kid, I didn’t really care. All I cared about was that we were going to eat rabbit – and as repulsive as dead rabbits smell when they’re gutted, they smell as delicious as they taste once they’re cooked.

Looking back, I know that our methods of gathering food were wrong and more than a little unconventional. But as a kid, I didn’t know any better. All I knew was that we were hungry and our dad could find us food when we didn’t have another way to get it. That didn’t make him my hero, but it did keep me from living off rice and eggs. Plus, I didn’t actually do anything wrong, so it was easy to distance myself from the situation.

Sadly, the distance disappeared the day my dad made me take matters into my own hands.

One day my dad walked through our living room, past the bedrooms and the kitchen, and into our back yard — if it was big enough to really classify it as a yard. There he built his grandest invention: his very own butcher shop.

It wasn’t really a butcher shop, but it might as well have been. He drove four wooden stakes into the ground and he attached chicken wire securely to the stakes to enclose the four sides. He tied the wire together tightly so nothing could get out from the sides. Once he attached a screened lid to the top of the box, his invention was complete. His contraption was about six feet wide and ten feet long, the perfect size for the ultimate box of trickery. My dad threw a pile of rice chaff into the center of the box and propped up the screened lid with a long stick.

Captivated by the idea of a free meal, a bunch of blackbirds flew into the box to eat the alluring food that was available to them. What those blackbirds didn’t realize is that we had a string attached to that stick, and that string was as good as any butcher’s tool. My older brother Keith and I hid out by the box, waiting for some birds to take our bait. Once the rice chaff lured enough birds into the trap, we pounced. We pulled the string, dropping down the screened lid and trapping the blackbirds inside the box. And once we caught enough blackbirds that way, we got to work.

After we effectively trapped our prey in the box, Keith and I had to open the top of the box, careful not to let any of the blackbirds escape, so we could jump inside. We crawled around in the box, bumping into each other and into the walls. The birds flew around in a panic with their black wings in a fluster, pecking at our bodies, smashing into our heads, and doing anything they could to get out of what had been a bird’s haven only moments before.

If you had been at my house as a spectator, I imagine this scene would have been quite a sight to see.

Keith and I swatted at the birds, grabbing onto them as quickly as we could. As they pecked and smashed and pecked some more, Keith and I just laughed at the sheer absurdity of our situation. Here we were, two poor kids, trapped in a box with a bunch of crazy birds — and as ludicrous as it was, we fully accepted our duty because our daddy told us to.

We knew that our situation was wrong and there were many things that we would have been happier doing at that time. However, we all pulled our weight in that house and we always came to terms with what we had to do, no matter how odd it was. And sometimes the best way to get through something crazy is to just smile and laugh your way through it. So that’s exactly what we did.

Even as we twisted the birds’ heads off and massacred every last one of them, we kept laughing because that was what we had to do to get ourselves through it. We knew our situation was bizarre, but that was the only lifestyle we knew.

However, we also knew enough to stop laughing once the hardest part of our job was done because in reality, there was really nothing funny about what we had to do.

Once we killed those 40 or 50 blackbirds, we crawled out of that box and kept our mouths shut. We had nothing to say to each other because there was really nothing that we could say. The only person we could talk to was my mom, so that’s where I went.

I was already distressed over what Keith and I had just done, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend any more time with those feathery carcasses. I walked in the house and said, “Mom, we’ve got to go clean those damn blackbirds now. Why doesn’t he get his ass out there and clean them himself?”

Ever the patient woman, my mom smiled a sympathetic smile at me and said, “Baby, you know how he is. There’s nothing you can say about it, so just do it please.”

I was going to do it anyway because I knew I had to, but I could never say no to anything my mama asked of me.

So heading back into the silence, I rejoined Keith in the yard and we tossed our soon-to-be dinner into a five gallon bucket. I don’t think we made a sound as we threw the birds into boiling water for easier plucking and we stayed silent while we gutted the blackbirds and cut out their breasts. Then we continued to do our work quietly as we got rid of the legs, thighs, and everything else that was of no use to us because it was either too small or too gross to eat.

By the time we got to that point, there was really nothing left to say. We did what we had to do — what our dad made us do — and our work was done. The meat was ready and soon our mom would cook up the blackbird breasts with a bit of brown gravy and rice. We would eat and then we would never have to talk about it again.

The problem with things that you think you’ll never have to talk about again is that those are the things that usually haunt you the most.

During all this time of thwarting cockroaches, outlawing, and killing blackbirds, we had a family dog named King. Now I know that everyone says this about their dogs, but King was the best dog a family could ever hope for. He was a huge Doberman that looked like he could eat you whole, but in reality, King would never hurt anyone or anything. He was beautiful, he was faithful, and above all else, he was as loving as he was loved.

Unfortunately, some of us loved King more than others. I know that I would have given up some of my goose gumbo to keep King healthy, but my dad didn’t agree. And when you’re dealing with a macho man, a man’s man, a kid’s nightmare, there’s nothing that you can do but go along with what the master says.

My dad owned us as much as he owned the dog, so the day that he said we couldn’t afford to feed King any more was the day that we all had to say our mental goodbyes. Despite what anybody said and despite what anybody felt, my dad put his foot down. We couldn’t waste any more of our food on a dog.

As days of hunger turned into weeks of starvation, we all watched as King withered away into nothing. His ribs started to show through his unhealthy looking coat and before we knew it, he was nothing but skin and bones. Our previously grand Doberman became a living skeleton. And even though we had the means to do something, we still couldn’t save him.

Being the great dog that he was, King never lashed out at any of us or tried to leave. He never begged, he never whined, and he never let on to how miserable he was. Of course, we knew he was miserable. That was plainly visible. But still, King loved us as if we were the greatest owners in the world — a fact that makes this situation even more haunting.

One day King went inside his dog house and he never came back out. At that point, he was barely a dog anymore; he was nothing more than a fur covered skeleton. King was officially dead and we all knew that we could have saved him at any time.

As was usually the case with my dad, he didn’t show any remorse. In fact, he didn’t show any emotion at all. He just grumbled that we had to get rid of the body. And of course the ‘we’ that he referred to didn’t include him. So we kids crawled into King’s house and removed his corpse. Then we threw away what was left of our dog, our companion, and our best friend.

On that day, I think I threw away whatever might have been left of any respect I would ever have for my dad, too. But as time would tell, King was not the only thing that my father would destroy from the inside out.

Excerpted from "Freedom’s Rein" by Shane Sellers. Copyright 2008 Shane Sellers. Reprinted with permission from Freedom's Rein LLC. All rights reserved.