TORONTO — Three years of living off the grid taught Justin Stein he didn't want to do it any longer.
After retiring from racing in 2016 to live off the land, the veteran jockey is returning to Woodbine Racetrack. The 133-day meet begins Saturday and runs through Dec. 15.
On May 1, 2016, Stein, the '12 Queen's Plate winner aboard Strait of Dover, abruptly retired at age 36. He opted to move his family — wife Renee and their four young boys — to a 160-acre property near Kamloops, B.C.
The Steins wanted to take up goat farming and live off the land while focusing on a simpler, family-first life. Trouble was, Justin Stein never got racing out of his system.
"I missed horse racing every day of my life when I was out there," he said Tuesday during a conference call. "I basically came to the conclusion I was too young to retire and didn't really retire for myself.
"I missed horse racing a lot and it sort of feels like to me it was something I was meant to do so I came back."
What Stein missed most was the thrill of being in the saddle in the midst of the action in a tight, close race.
"Oh, the adrenaline," he said. "That in-the-moment feeling when you're in a race and connected with a horse and watching the action in front of you and the race unfold.
"It feels like you're in the moment forever but at the same time it only lasts an instant really."
And then there was the jockey room at Woodbine.
"I definitely missed being around the Woodbine people," he said. "The family that it feels like there.
"There's a lot."
Stein began riding in 2004 at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver. He enters the '19 season having won 1,027 career races, including the '12 Queen's Plate for trainer Dan Vella.
Stein also guided Academic, a 66-1 longshot trained by Reade Baker, to a track-record setting win in the '15 Woodbine Oaks. But less than a year later, Stein surprised many by leaving the track while still at the top of his game.
"Where I ended up, way up high in the mountains, the terrain is very rugged and conditions are unforgiving," Stein said. "I learned a lot, a lot of different survival skills, but I also learned I don't want to live off the grid, that's what it boils down to.
"I love the mountains, I love being up there in the wilderness but I'll just go and play up there and not live there. Coming back to racing I get to go back to the mountains and play in my off time and that's what it's supposed to be about."
But life in the wilderness taught Stein some very valuable lessons.
"Well, I got extremely resourceful (and) creative," he said. "The one thing I'd say I took out of there was, and I guess you could say I'm proud of it, is I know I can rely on myself for any possible thing.
"I'm capable of doing anything, any kind of challenge I'll rise to even if it takes me three or times to get it done. I'll get it done right eventually. I can just achieve stuff."
When Stein moved to B.C., he took Stormy Lord, his favourite horse, with him. The Ontario-bred won 10-of-34 career starts — including four with Stein aboard — and earned over $1.2 million.
Stein adopted Stormy Lord when the diminutive but hard-working horse — much like Stein — retired in 2013, building a paddock for him. The horse remains in B.C. recovering from a nasty leg cut, but Stein expects to bring Stormy Lord back to Ontario once he has fully recovered.
"He's going to make a full recovery but it was very worrisome for me at first," Stein said. "He's my big horse, he taught my kids how to ride.
"He's important to me and he'll be coming here as soon as I can get him."
Stein isn't nervous about returning to racing full-time but understands how some might wonder if the time off has affected his skills. Living in B.C. left Stein strong and fit physically and he said it didn't take long to feel comfortable again on the back of a horse.
"When they say it feels like getting on a bike again, it was basically like that," he said. "It felt like it always did.
"Three years off gives you a lot of time to think about something you were passionately in love with and I wasn't ready to leave. I let myself get distracted the last couple of years I was riding and it kind of got in the way of me performing the way I feel I could've. When I come back this time, that focus is what I'm going to put into practice . . . it's just being that guy now, athlete and race rider."
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press