Racing fans shocked Shoemaker's nastiest spill came behind wheel

April 10, 1991|By Jim McCurdie | Jim McCurdie,Knight-Ridder

ARCADIA, CAILF. — ARCADIA, Calif. -- In horse racing terms, it was dark Tuesday at Santa Anita Park. Perhaps never darker.

Bill Shoemaker, the winningest jockey in the history of thoroughbred racing, was partly paralyzed but his condition was upgraded from critical to serious at a Covina hospital after he suffered a broken neck and other injuries when his car went out of control and rolled down an embankment on a freeway transition road in San Dimas Monday night.

Down in the stables at the track where much of the legend of Shoemaker was written, high-priced horses were relaxing in their stalls after being put through their early morning paces. And a small gathering of trainers, stable hands and track publicists were trying to understand how a man who spent 41 years of his life riding unpredictable, 1,200-pound animals could suffer his nastiest spill at the wheel of a Ford Bronco.

"It's sad that something like that can happen to a man who's ridden so many horses and taken so many chances," trainer Henry Moreno said. "We just have to pray for him. That's about all we can do for the rascal."

Shoemaker, 59, retired from riding in February 1990. He left with 8,833 victories, 40,350 mounts and career earnings totaling $123,375,524. In 1986, he became the oldest jockey ever to win the Kentucky Derby, guiding Ferdinand to victory at the age of 54.

"Shoe," as he's known to legions of racing enthusiasts, could still be found at Hollywood Park or Santa Anita most days before sunrise. He began a career as a trainer last May, and has had horses finish in the money in 21 of 57 starts at this season's Santa Anita meeting.

"He's been very successful in the short time he's been training," Moreno said. "His peers think the world of him. He's just as respected as a trainer as he was as a jockey."

Yesterday morning, Shoemaker's peers and friends were stunned by news that the California Highway Patrol had arrested him on suspicion of misdemeanor drunken driving after the one-vehicle accident that occurred at about 8 p.m. Monday.

Doug Atkins of the Eclipse Stable is the owner of Shirkee -- the Shoemaker-trained horse who won the Shane Kite Stakes at Santa Anita on March 30 -- and a longtime associate of Shoemaker.

"Shoe's not a drinker, he just isn't," Atkins said. "I've never seen him even remotely intoxicated, and I've known him 30 years."

There appeared to be some cause for optimism yesterday afternoon, when it was announced that Shoemaker's condition was upgraded from critical to serious, making him stable enough to be transported to Centinela Hospital in Inglewood.

"I spoke with his wife and daughter," Atkins said. "They seemed fairly upbeat, everything considered."

Shoemaker's care is being overseen by Dr. Robert Kerlan of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic, the team physician for the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Lakers. Kerlan is a thoroughbred owner and another longtime friend of Shoemaker. He treated the jockey after each of his most serious racing injuries -- a broken leg suffered in a spill at Santa Anita in 1968 and a crushed pelvis that resulted from his mount flipping on top of him in the saddling barn at Hollywood Park in 1969.

Shoemaker apparently had made a smooth transition to his new career. In a February interview with Sports Illustrated, he expressed enthusiasm about becoming a trainer.

"Hell, where else could I go early in the morning?" he said. "I'm a horseman. I know what to look for in horses. I know what they say when they talk to me. How can I go wrong?"

He did little wrong as a jockey.

"He could be behind by 25 lengths, and win it in a photo," Moreno said.

But the most celebrated jockey in the sport's history faces his most difficult comeback now.

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