'Shoe' makes sag a11 the more sad

JOHN EISENBERG

April 30, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Bill Shoemaker was back at Churchill Downs yesterday, unable even to scratch an itch on his nose, yet still trying to win another Kentucky Derby.

It was a triumph and a tragedy, but neither so much as the latest scene from a very bad ending. Nothing more than that.

It should have been more, of course. More stirring. More sympathetic. America's jockey returning at age 61 as the trainer of a Derby contender. His limp little body strapped into a wheelchair, where he has been since he rolled his Bronco down a highway embankment two years ago and wound up a quadriplegic. What evocative images, evidence of nothing if not a remarkable will and virtuoso horsemanship.

Yet, as impossible as it was not to feel the conflicting emotions of compassion, sadness and admiration as Shoemaker was wheeled around the back side by an attendant on a warm, blue morning -- "what a splendid day to be outside," Shoe said -- it was difficult to shed a tear. So much about the story is so unseemly.

Shoemaker had come from a country club bar when he crashed his Bronco that night. Because it was his business and he harmed only himself, harmed himself tragically, he was not prosecuted and no great outcry arose about his drinking and driving. But his behavior since the accident has disappointed his fans and infuriated many observers.

He has admitted to little wrongdoing, saying he lost control only when he reached over to pick up his car phone and call his young daughter. He has never spoken out about the sin of drinking and driving, as if it wasn't relevant to his case. And now he has filed a series of lawsuits against the state of California, the hospital where he was first taken, and the company from which he bought his car.

The insinuation is that his quadriplegia is the fault of the car, the lack of guardrails on the highway and the doctors who treated him. This from a man who was legally drunk at the time of the accident, his blood-alcohol level of .13 considerably higher than California's .08 legal limit.

What an ending to the story of a jockey with no peer.

We should know by now not to hold athletes up to a different standard, but Shoemaker was always envisioned as one of the special few, humble and decent and all those things. But the lawsuits in particular have cast him in a harsh light not at all in keeping with his persona: just another litigious opportunist. (The car company already has settled out of court.)

According to a recent Sports Illustrated story, the Los Angeles Times has been flooded with angry letters from readers furious about the prospect of their taxes going to Shoemaker should he win his case against the state. Can you blame them? California is only in a desperate financial crisis.

None of this was fair game yesterday morning on the back side, of course. "I'm here to win a horse race," Shoemaker said tersely. Asked if the lawsuits and letters were in the back of his mind, he nodded only that they were. He was always a stoic, of course.

Most of the morning was spent in celebration of his remarkable return, which comes only after hundreds of hours of exhaustive rehab. Reporters followed him everywhere. The questions were benign. How does it feel to be back? How's your horse? How's the race look? What's the difference between being a trainer and a jockey?

2l For the record, his horse's name is Diazo and probably doesn't belong in the Derby. The colt finished third in the Arkansas Derby, but has only five career starts and worked five-eighths of a mile earlier this week a full three seconds slower than contender Bull inthe Heather. "That's 20 lengths," trainer Wayne Lukas said.

Maybe owner Allen Paulson caught Derby fever, but Shoemaker isn't one to misuse a horse. Before the accident, he was on his way to becoming a big-time success as a trainer.

"The only thing I can't do anymore is ride them in the mornings," he said yesterday. "But I can still see them, which is enough. And I like Diazo."

He was wearing a Detroit Tigers cap that matched his dark blue sweat pants, and a red jacket with the name of his racing stable on it. His hands, bloated from inactivity, were planted on armrests. His attendant put a coffee cup to his lips every 90 seconds.

It was stunningly poignant, but the mean-spirited business that went unmentioned hung in the air like a rotten smell that wouldn't go away. Gracious, what a lousy ending.

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