Shoemaker, motionless, is recalled for his touch

May 16, 1991|By Bill Glauber

Racing's greatest jockey lies paralyzed in the trauma unit of Swedish Medical Center in Denver. He needs a respirator to breathe. He is unable to speak.

But, even now, they talk of Bill Shoemaker's hands. Small, yet powerful, those hands could soothe and coax racehorses into becoming legends.

He rode Swaps and Ferdinand, Damascus and Sword Dancer, Forego and John Henry. He won 8,883 races. He was a jockey for 41 years, a 4-foot-11, 98-pound athletic giant.

"The man had the greatest set of hands in this business," trainer Ron McAnally said. "To have all of that taken away is just incredible. He and I started out together. It's sad to see it all end this way."

The 1991 Triple Crown season continues with Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico. But this has become horse racing's melancholy season. On April 8, Shoemaker was driving a Ford Bronco on the Foothill Freeway in San Dimas, Calif. The vehicle veered off the road and flipped down an embankment, leaving Shoemaker, who was legally drunk, paralyzed from the neck down with a spinal-cord injury.

Even as he trains Olympio for an assault on the Preakness, McAnally said he thinks of Shoemaker.

"It's difficult for anyone to cope with what has happened to Bill," McAnally said. "We've all had a few drinks. I know that's wrong. And he was reaching for his car phone when the accident happened. The man is so little. And I can see him reaching for that car phone."

The first time McAnally saw Shoemaker was in 1948 at Santa Anita in California. They were mucking out stables.

"I was in a stable across from his, and I was wondering what this little guy was doing mucking out stalls, because he should be on horses," McAnally said.

"That went on during the winter of 1948, and then I had to do a two-year hitch in the service. When I got out, all I heard was about this kid named Shoe who did this and did that. Well, I had to go down to the paddock see this kid. And sure enough, it was the little guy who was mucking out the stalls at Santa Anita."

The little guy became the biggest man in racing. His feats, even his greatest failure of standing up on Gallant Man at the sixteenth pole to lose the 1957 Kentucky Derby to Iron Liege, became part of racing myth.

"If God ever wanted to meet great people from all walks of life, racing would have to send Bill Shoemaker," said Chick Lang, former Pimlico general manager. "He is absolutely the most well-respected, well-liked, revered person in our business. When Bill first came around, he was called Silent Shoe. He was like Gary Cooper. 'Yep. Nope.' But, over the years, he showed that he was for real and that he was nice. Everyone is praying for him."

At the Swedish Medical Center, they count Shoemaker's mail not by the piece, but by the pound. His wife, Cindy, and 11-year-old daughter, Amanda, remain in California, waiting for his return.

In jockeys' rooms around the country, Shoemaker is remembered with fondness, awe and sadness. A jockey's greatest fear may be is paralysis, not death. The man who exhibited all the right stuff on the track, who made horses bend to his will with the feathery touch of his hands, cannot move a muscle from his neck down.

"In a split second, his whole life changed, his family's life changed and I think it's going to change a lot of other people's lives," rider Gary Stevens said after hearing of Shoemaker's accident. "He pulled a lot of miracles out of the hat before, and I hope he's got one miracle left."

The racing industry is rallying around Shoemaker. A Shoemaker Foundation has been established to help defray his medical costs. The California Horsemen's Racing Association meetings at Hollywood Park, Del Mar, Pomona, Oak Tree and Bay Meadows will donate a percentage of the wagers from a designated stakes race to the foundation. Tracks nationally are expected to organize similar contributions.

"We've got only a few legends," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. "He is probably our most visible and identifiable person in the industry, the most famous person this industry has produced in 50 years. Even the non-racing people want to help him through this crisis."

They will run the Preakness Saturday, and they will think of Shoemaker. They will recall his triumphs and his greatness. They will think of his hands.

"There is a glimmer of hope that he might be able to use one finger on his right hand," McAnally said. "With that finger, he could operate a wheelchair."

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