COMMENTARY / HORSE RACING : Image of Shoemaker Now Sadly Scuffed


It might seem inconceivable that Bill Shoemaker, a legend of racing and now a quadriplegic in a wheelchair, could come to the Kentucky Derby as anything but an object of adulation and sympathy.

But the world’s top race-winning jockey finds himself enmeshed in controversy over the accident that caused his paralysis and the lawsuits that have followed it. Those issues overshadowed his bid to win the Derby as a trainer with the colt Diazo after winning it four times as a rider. Many people here think he left Diazo’s training in the hands of his assistant and postponed his arrival at Churchill Downs until a week ago Thursday morning so that he wouldn’t be bombarded with so many probing, hostile questions from the media.

Until April 8, 1991, Shoemaker was making an almost effortless transition from successful jockey to successful trainer. He had built up so much good will during 41 years in the saddle--people invariably used the word “class” in any description of him--that owners were eager to give him good horses to help him launch his new career. But after his Ford Bronco veered off a California highway and plunged down a 40-foot embankment, Shoemaker was paralyzed, and faced the most difficult challenge of his life.


News reports said that Shoemaker’s blood-alcohol content was over the legal limit, while Shoemaker himself said he recalled drinking only a couple of beers. Those details hardly seemed to matter in light of the tragedy. Shoemaker fought to regain control of his life. Equipped with a wheelchair that he could operate by blowing into a tube, he managed to resume his career as a trainer.

His assistant, Paddy Gallagher, checks the horses in their stalls every morning and reports to Shoemaker. The trainer watches from his wheelchair as his horses go through their morning exercises, and then returns to the barn to supervise the stable business. “He’s really the same as he was before,” Gallagher said, “except that he can’t get on the horses.”

The whole world was rooting for the beloved Shoe--until he sued the state of California because the road on which he was driving didn’t have guardrails, sued the hospital that had treated him and collected an out-of-court settlement from the Ford Motor Co. Suddenly, all of the sympathy for him evaporated.

The Los Angeles Times was deluged with an unprecedented barrage of letters to the editor denouncing Shoemaker’s refusal to take responsibility for his actions. Not once did he say anything like, “Let this be a lesson: Don’t drink and drive.” The lawsuits, his critics said, were an exercise in denial and greed.

The hostility mounted after Sports Illustrated published Bill Nack’s painstakingly researched article that revealed just how much Shoemaker had been drinking on that fateful night--one beer and three vodka martinis--and reported that his blood-alcohol level was .196, more than double the legal limit. There seemed little doubt that Shoemaker was driving drunk and yet was looking to make everybody pay for his mistake.

The controversy is a sad, pitiful spectacle, for Shoemaker is doing this because he needs the money. Even before the accident, an expensive marriage and an expensive divorce had left him with little to show for a career in which his horses won $123 million in purses. He ended that career with a shameless, money-motivated “farewell tour” in which he collected whatever he could for appearances at tracks around the country. Now he is faced with a lifetime of medical expenses, and he undoubtedly has worries about his financial future.


So it is easy to understand why he would listen when a lawyer counseled, “Sue!” And Shoemaker has been so accustomed to being heaped with praise by the public and the press that he never could have conceived what these lawsuits would do to his image.

Even a victory in the Derby--which would have let him join Johnny Longden as the only men to win the race as jockey and trainer--wouldn’t have been enough to restore him to the status of a hero. His horse did well last Saturday, finishing fifth. Diazo may have had as much talent as any member of the field, though it is questionable if the lightly raced colt had the necessary experience. Shoemaker acknowledged this concern in a telephone interview, saying, “I’d like to have him a little more seasoning, but he’s a tough little dude.”

Shoemaker would, of course, have prefered to be talking and thinking exclusively last week about matters relating to his horse. When he was asked about the lawsuit, the controversy and the Sports Illustrated article, he said, “I’m not worrying about all of that other stuff. I’m trying to win a horse race.”

Realistically, though, he cannot escape these other issues. The animosity caused by his lawsuits may be with Shoemaker as long as the other terrible, permanent consequences of his accident.