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KENTUCKY DERBY : Shoe Has New View of Old Place

“So, what do you see?”

The hum from Bill Shoemaker’s motorized wheelchair became silent as he considered the question, a rigid torso and paralyzed legs preventing him from taking a better view around familiar grounds.

“A lot of good memories,” he answered at last.

“And?”

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“And, some bad ones,” he said. “I got beat here on a couple of favorites.”

Gone were the silken sleeves, mud-caked boots, jodhpurs and visor that he wore 41 years ago on his first Kentucky Derby mount, Count Flame. Shortly after sunrise Thursday, when the chair-bound Shoemaker returned to Churchill Downs for the first time since his 1991 auto accident, he was wearing a jacket with his name embroidered across the pocket, sneakers, blue sweat pants and a Detroit Tiger baseball cap.

“Bought it in California,” Shoe said of the cap.

“But why a Detroit cap?” he was asked.

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“Because it matches my pants,” he said.

He is still Shoe, from head to toe. Not the man he used to be, certainly. Nor as esteemed in some circles as he once was, not since an out-of-court settlement with an auto manufacturer aroused hostility in many who resented an alleged drunk driver’s reaping benefits from an accident that appeared to have been his own fault.

Shoemaker is aware that such sentiment exists, but he said Thursday: “I don’t think much about it. I’m trying to win a horse race.”

He won four of them here--the last one in 1986, when Shoe’s victory aboard Ferdinand made him, at 54, the oldest jockey to win a Kentucky Derby.

The good memories.

Swaps, 1955. Tomy Lee, 1959. Lucky Debonair, 1965. Ferdinand, 1986.

And, some bad ones.

Correlation, the favorite in 1954, running sixth. Misjudging the finish on Gallant Man in 1957. Candy Spots, Hill Rise, Damascus--favorites who failed to win with Shoe in the saddle.

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Now he is back as trainer of Diazo, who galloped a mile and a half in the morning Thursday under Shoemaker’s observation for the first time this week. The horse is owned by Allen Paulson, whose day was not made by the drawings of the Nos. 17 and 18 post positions for his entry, Corby and Diazo, in a 19-horse lineup.

“Oh, I didn’t like the No. 1 position Ferdinand had,” Shoemaker said. “I don’t see any reason (Diazo) can’t win from No. 18.”

Difficult to win from the position he is in. But not impossible.

Gato Del Sol’s post position was 18th when he won here (for another rider) in 1982. Two years later, Swale ran out of the No. 15 hole and won.

Yet every jockey, trainer and owner is searching for an edge whenever he or she comes to Kentucky. That much has not changed for Shoemaker, even if his circumstances have.

Shoemaker was a veritable yearling in 1952 when he rode in his first Derby, finishing fifth on Count Flame.

A year later, when Native Dancer was the supposed super horse against whom no one was thought to have a chance, Dark Star won in an upset. Native Dancer was second and almost got caught by Invigorator, with Shoemaker aboard.

These were the first of 26 Kentucky Derby mounts for Shoe. He got his maiden victory in 1955 with Swaps, one of the three California-breds that have won the Derby.

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Now comes Diazo, lightly raced but impressive enough at Santa Anita to rate a run for the roses.

“I hope he got enough out of the Arkansas Derby to be fit,” Shoemaker said. “I wish he had more seasoning.

“But he’s a fighter, a tough-minded little horse. Sometimes, that’s enough.”

Kent Desormeaux, often referred to as the next Shoemaker, will be Diazo’s jockey.

Although this will be only the third Derby for Desormeaux, who has yet to win one, Shoemaker does not anticipate giving him many orders.

“It’s tough to give instructions in this type of race, especially with such a big field,” Shoemaker said.

This, though, is the role in horse racing available to Shoemaker today--telling someone else what to do with a horse.

“I can’t ride them like I used to, but I can still watch them and do the same things any other trainer can do,” he said. “Riding is the only thing I can’t do.”

Difficult to win from the position he is in. But not impossible.


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