ESPN Network: | | | | ABCSports | EXPN | INSIDER | FANTASY   

Let's be honest about The Masters

Murray: The summit of hustlery

Murray: Qualifying for Derby

Murray: A star is born

Murray: The Leader of the Pirates

Murray: Walton's more than a footnote

Murray: Golf's for athletes – sorry

Wednesday, August 8, 2001
The Shoe says he will win this one, too
By Jim Murray
Special to

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on July 11, 1991.

I talked to the world's greatest race rider the other day.

I asked him how he thought he was going to do.

"Bet on me," Bill Shoemaker said. "I should be even money in here."

You never could get much of a price on Willie Shoemaker. It never was advisable to bet against him.

But he's not getting ready for a Gold Cup this time. This is not the fourth at Arlington. Even the Kentucky Derby pales beside this challenge. The Belmont distance of a mile and a half is a sprint compared to the distance of ground Shoe has ahead of him. The track is greasy, and you can't even see the homestretch.

The man who won four Kentucky Derbies, two Preaknesses and five Belmonts -- to say nothing of 8,822 other races including 11 Santa Anita Handicaps -- is in the ride of his life.

Anyone else would scratch.

Shoe is not getting the mount on Swaps for this Derby. He rides a wheelchair. He's paralyzed from the neck down. If he feels movement in even a finger, it's cause for a party. Happiness is a twinge in your elbow.

Shoemaker was the best there ever was at taking the mount they said couldn't be ridden and bringing him home by eight lengths.

Horses, like people, loved him.

As usual, he's got a rogue to bring home this time. If anyone can do it, he can. It's a longshot -- the longest shot he ever rode. But as usual, with Shoemaker in the irons, the odds will drop.

The man who handled 40,343 mounts, shadow-jumpers, lug-ins, biters, kickers, 1,200 pounds of malevolence or laziness, couldn't handle a Ford Bronco. It jumped the track on him one chilly night last April. When they picked up the 95-pound, 4-foot-11 body, there was no sign it was alive. He could hardly breathe, talk, frost a glass, and his blood pressure had dropped, so they had to inject him to get any.

Of course, Shoemaker has been there before. Fifty-nine years ago, in the little town of Fabens, Texas, the doctors gave him less chance than they do now. He weighed in at little over two pounds at birth, was barely a hand's length long and was as purplish-blue as a twilight. "That baby'll be dead by morning," the doctor told the mother.

Shoemaker beat the price, as always. Fed by an eyedropper like a bird till he was several weeks old, his whole life was spent, so to speak, on the rail.

He became one of the great figures in sport for his time and for all time because of his ask-no-favors personality and ability to take on adversity. Red Smith, an admirer, once wrote that if Shoemaker were 6 feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds, he could beat anybody at anything.

He asked little of life. And got it.

"Can you imagine?" he said ruefully the other day. "I rodes 40,000 horses -- and an auto got me."

The auto got him, all right. It toppled him of an off-ramp and piled him up on a freeway 45 feet below, and he fractured the fifth, sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae in the fall, with subsequent damage to the spinal cord and cessation of the ability to move muscles. Simple term: quadriplegia.

He was on his way home from a golf course at the time, but if friends he was drinking beer with blame themselves, Shoemaker doesn't. Not his style. When he stood up in the stirrups in a Derby in 1957, the ready-made excuse was that the finish pole was confusing in the longest homestretch in racing, but Shoe would have none of it. "I blew it!" he admitted.

He still doesn't sound like a man looking for something or someone else to blame. "I have great memorie. I've had a great life. I'll have a great life again. It happens. You live with it."

As usual, he's confounding the doctors. Seven weeks ago, he could move only his eyes. Now, he can move a wheelchair. "I blow into it!" he tells you proudly. "I can drive the thing by myself! I drive it by mouth. By air power, you might say! It works with compression. It's amazing what you can do with your mouth!" The air pressure propels the vehicle. "I was down at the stables just this morning!" Shoe says excitedly. The stables are not at Santa Anita, they're at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., where Shoemaker will be spending the next few months. "Did you see any Swapses or Ferdinands dow there?" he is asked. "Naw, They're all jumping horses," he tells you.

A month ago, the only place he could see a horse was on a television screen. He could get off a respirator only a few minutes a day. His conversation was restricted to blinks. Now, he's off it all day. He's on the phone more often than George Bush.

He was getting ready to watch the All-Star game the day I called. But he uses his television screen and special satellite dish largely to check the progress of the horses he trains. His assistant, Paddy Gallagher, films the works and transmits them to the hospital room.

He lives in a metal halo, a modern orthopedic version of a medieval torture chamber the Borgias would have been proud of, but it will be removed when it has held the fractures in alignment and promoted growth.

Will Shoe make the winner's circle again? Will there be a hole on the rail he can get through to rhe roses as he did with Fredinand in the '86 Derby? Will this trip, bad as it is leaving the gate, end up in winner's circle No. 8,834, the most important one he's ever made?

The whole world hopes so. Showemaker knows so. "Bet on it," he advises us.

Horses have been trained from wheelchairs before. Shoemaker is sure he not only can do it, he will do it and be back on a track in time for the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita in October. He'll never go there on horseback again, but you can go to a winner's circle by chair, too.

Any horseplayer in the country can tell you it's the first place to look for Willie Shoemaker.

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998. Help | Advertiser Info | Contact Us | Tools | Site Map | Jobs at
Copyright ©2000 ESPN Internet Ventures. Terms of Use and Privacy Policy and Safety Information are applicable to this site.