What should be an interesting Triple Crown series, along with the Pimlico Special, came along just in time to give racing a needed shot in the arm. The whole sport has been on a kind of downer lately.
Defections of standouts such as Dinard, Cahill Road and others from the Derby because of injuries were just a minor part of it, because those things happen almost every year. The paralysis of Bill Shoemaker from the neck down in an automobile accident, followed by the unexpected death of Laz Barrera, had everybody who knew them in a sort of state of depression. To know them was to like them, respect them. I can't recall anybody saying anything bad about either.
Those who contend that jockeys aren't athletes because the horse does all the work never saw Shoe in action. Here is a guy less than 5 feet tall and weighing around 100 pounds, who not only handled those 1,000-pound horses, but also was usually in the 70s on the golf course and who could beat you in tennis, billiards, table tennis, or just about anything else.
The greatest fear of any jockey is that he will be paralyzed, and after all those years of riding, that's the condition in which Shoe now finds himself, because he didn't handle a four-wheeled car as well as he did those four-legged animals.
I've been told that those who played golf with him the day of his accident are upset that he has been labeled as driving when he shouldn't have been permitted to do so.
Don Pierce, a successful rider of Shoe's vintage and one of his golfing buddies who was with him that day, gave Chick Lang his version of what happened. He said Shoe had gotten up at 5 a.m. to train his growing stable of horses and wanted to beg off from the usual Monday golf outing, saying he was tired. Pierce and others talked him into playing to get away from the grind for an afternoon.
After the golf, they had their usual several beers, while verbally replaying the round. They thought Shoe had two beers, and if there was even a hint that he shouldn't drive, somebody else would have done it. He was driving a Ford Bronco, which, because he is so short, had extensions on the pedals so he could reach them.
He also had a phone that sits so low near the floor, he had to reach down below the -- to dial it. Their feeling is that while on the winding, hilly stretch of road that led to the expressway, he reached for the phone to call home, momentarily lost control and went over the embankment. He had his seat belt on, but this time it obviously didn't help. The news about his future is not good.
My favorite story involving Shoe was one he once told me at Churchill Downs. This was early on a Derby card, a race was going on, and when I went into the jockeys' room, he was back in a corner by himself, seemingly anxious for company. I don't recall how we got on the subject, but he started talking about the time he came to Louisville, Ky., to ride Swaps to his 1955 Derby win. Shoe had suffered a leg injury that required him to go to the University of Louisville every day for treatment so he could be physically able to ride Swaps.
It was during spring football practice, and he said: "Can you see me sitting there with all those big dudes? I enjoyed them. We had a good time together, and I especially liked one guy I talked with almost every day. The last day I was there, I asked one of the trainers who the young fellow was, and he said: 'It's kind of sad about him. He has his heart set on playing pro football, but a lot of people don't think he'll make it. His name is John Unitas.' "
Since Unitas was already a star with the Colts, Shoe, in that modest way of his, said, "Do you reckon he'd remember me?" As if anybody could forget the greatest jockey who ever rode a horse.
Barrera was one of the great trainers, a true Hall of Famer who handled a Triple Crown winner in Affirmed, among many brilliant feats. He was a delight to be around, with his outgoing nature, the wealth of knowledge, all expressed in as amusing a Cuban accent as you've ever heard.
A big baseball fan, he asked me in the Pimlico barn area early one morning during Preakness week, "How did my [and I thought he said] jockeys make out last night?" I said: "Jockeys? How many of them do you have?" He said, "Not jockeys, Jonkees." Come to find out, he was talking about the Yankees.
In 1983, I went from seeing Brooks Robinson inducted into the Hall of Fame to visit the racing Hall of Fame at Saratoga and to watch a few days of racing at the historic track. Chick Lang and I, along with our wives, were walking through the box area to get to seats elsewhere when a voice said, "Where is the Maryland entry going?" It was Laz. When we explained we were looking for seats, he said: "Sit in my box. I have no horses in today. What I need a box for?"
That's the kind of guy he was. It is no wonder the racing community sorrows at his passing, and over Shoemaker's great misfortune.