At about 7:45 p.m. on April 8, 1991, on a clear, dry night below the San Gabriel Mountains in San Dimas, Calif., Bill Shoemaker left the Sierra La Verne Country Club following one round of golf and four rounds of drinks. Sitting behind the wheel of his blue 1990 Ford Bronco II, belted to his seat, he was feeling tired, he was running late, and he was also legally intoxicated as he headed west on Route 30 toward the Foothill Freeway and his home 16 miles away in San Marino.
It was Monday, an off day at nearby Santa Anita Park, and Shoemaker rose as usual that morning, between 4:30 and 5. He trained his stable of race horses until sometime after 10. He then returned home and, late in the morning, drove alone to the golf course. He and three friends teed off around noon. After shooting his typical round in the 80s, Shoemaker wound up in the late afternoon sitting in the clubhouse, playing liar's poker and drinking on an empty stomach. The subject of precisely what and how much Shoemaker had to drink has been raised at various colloquies dealing with the events of that day, from press interviews to depositions and court arguments. He recalls having two beers and a vodka and tonic in the two or three hours he spent in the clubhouse. According to one attorney for the California Department of Transportation, however, a state investigator recently obtained information from Lee Bittle, the bartender who poured the drinks served to Shoemaker that day. Bittle told the investigator that Shoemaker started out with a Bud Light and then ordered three vodka martinis before he left.
As he was heading west on Route 30, about four miles southwest of the country club, Shoemaker says, he decided to call his 10-year-old daughter, Amanda, and his mother-in-law, Elisabeth Barnes, to tell them he was on his way. That stretch of Route 30 was nearly deserted, and Shoemaker took his eyes off the road for only a moment—for no longer, he says, than the time it took him to reach down for the phone mounted on the floor of his car.
For no longer than the time it once took him to cock his stick on John Henry or cluck to Swaps at the quarter pole or send Ferdinand diving for that blessed hole that opened along the fence at the top of the stretch in the 1986 Kentucky Derby. For no more than the instant it took him in the '57 Belmont Stakes—when he was riding Gallant Man and he ranged up very boldly next to Bold Ruler and Eddie Arcaro, with whom he had made a side bet over dinner the night before—to look over at Arcaro and needle the old man with, "How you doin', Dad?" For no longer than it took Arcaro to look over and see the stranglehold Shoemaker had on the Man and shout back, "——you, Shoe!"
April 18, 1993
For more than four decades Bill Shoemaker had lived a life as routinely perilous as any athlete's, working horses in the morning and racing them through the afternoon—a perfectly built Tom Thumb of a man, all of 4'11" and 95 pounds, balanced on the backs of sweat-slippery, spindly-legged, half-ton animals who bore him through shifting winds and traffic at speeds nearing 40 miles an hour to the highest levels of a sport in which ambulances chase after the athletes while they work. In 41 years, from the day he began race riding, in April 1949, until he quit, in February 1990, he had won more races, 8,833; more stakes races, 1,009; and ridden more mounts, 40,350, than any jockey in history. After suffering chipped and broken bones and assorted cuts and contusions, he had walked away, at age 58, under his own steam and almost immediately stepped into the relatively dull, safe cocoon of the trainer's life.
He rode the horses that he trained in morning workouts, but the hard-riding days, those wild-eyed cavalry charges into the first turn, were over. He left with his scars and his calcium deposits, but he had escaped the fate that all riders dread more keenly than death. "When I retired," Shoemaker says, "I remember thinking, Jeez, I rode all those races, and I dodged the bullet! For 40 years. I never had a spinal injury. I didn't get crippled up. All the falls I had. It could have happened any day. Didn't happen. Just lucky, I guess...."
No man in the annals of racing ever came into training, cold, with more well-wishers and financial backers fanning the wind in his sails. Shoemaker had banked such enormous personal popularity over the years, with his appeal extending to the highest reaches of the sport, that his retirement from the saddle became a nine-month-long public ceremony, during which he made paid guest appearances at racetracks around the world. Celebrated riders rarely make great trainers, but Shoemaker was already training upward of 40 horses in his first year. He won his first stakes race only six months after he opened shop, when Baldomero came home first in the Osunitas Handicap at Del Mar, and in the spring of 1991 he took charge of another gifted stakes winner, Fire the Groom. In the waning years of his riding career he had spent hours studying the trainer's craft at the barn of California's master horseman, Charles Whittingham, for whom he had won the Derby on Ferdinand and more than 200 other stakes races across four decades.
"He was about to become the trainer of the next 15 years in California," says veteran conditioner Brian Mayberry. "He was going to have the same kind of career that he had as a jockey. He had it all."
And then, just as quickly, he did not.
Rebecca Byrd was also driving west on Route 30, on her way to an aerobics class in Monrovia, when she first noticed the Bronco in the far right lane, about 100 yards in front of her. Route 30 at that point is a divided eight-lane highway and as straight as the homestretch at Santa Anita. "Pretty empty," is how Byrd described the traffic density at that moment. She was in the lane adjacent to the Bronco's, and the only reason she took special notice of it was that it began to enter, she says, "my range of concern. It seemed to lose speed." As she approached within two car lengths of the Bronco, Byrd said, it simply swerved off to the right, across the nine-foot shoulder and over the four-inch-high asphalt berm and plunged from her view down a steep, 40-foot embankment, raising in its wake a billow of dust. "I was shocked," Byrd said. "I thought, Did I really see that?"
All that Shoemaker remembers after his Bronco veered right were his headlights illuminating the roadside reflectors as he bucked over the berm, then his gunning the Bronco as he turned the steering wheel left, fighting to get the truck back onto the road, and finally the violent rolling over to the right, "over and over and over," as the vehicle tumbled through the dry dirt and grass of the embankment. The rest was darkness: Windows shattered and popped out; the back door broke open; the roof collapsed; his scalp was gashed and his spine was dislocated at the base of his neck, between his sixth and seventh cervical disks. A one-way (westbound), two-lane feeder road, which provides access to the Foothill Freeway, runs along the bottom of that embankment. The Bronco bounced to a stop in the left lane of that road, landing upright and perpendicular to traffic, its driver's side facing the oncoming cars. And a 42-year-old electronics executive named Terry Fisher was heading toward the Bronco at 60 miles an hour.
Fisher was out doing errands with his 14-year-old daughter, April. In fact, he had just slipped onto the feeder road when he saw the dust shroud in the distance. He was beginning to slow down when suddenly, right in front of him, he saw the red of the Bronco's taillights and the yellowish glow of its dome light. Fisher hit his brakes hard and veered to the right. "If his battery had come loose with all the tumbling he did and he'd had no lights, I'd have T-boned him," Fisher says.
He parked on the right shoulder and dashed across the road to the driver's side of the Bronco. The window was open; the driver was motionless. The door was mangled, and Fisher struggled to force it open. "I bent it back to the point where I think I broke the hinges," he says. Peering inside, Fisher saw this little man he did not recognize, blood all over his face and his body strangely contorted, with his legs twisted pretzellike around each other. His chin was tucked at a severe angle on his chest, and his head was under the top of the steering wheel.
"That's the first thing I noticed," Fisher says, "that, Jesus, there's something wrong with his neck; nobody could put their head at that angle. He looked like a contortionist. The first thing I did was take his seat belt off and untwist his legs, and then I loosened his pants so he could breathe. He wasn't breathing. I tried to figure where the blood was coming from, and I saw a big cut on his head. I picked up a sweater lying on the floor and set that on the top of his head to hold the bleeding down and then wiped his face with it to get the blood off. He had so much damn blood, and I thought he was dead. Then I tilted his bucket seat back a little bit and lifted his head back gently, because I assumed he had a neck injury, and he still wasn't breathing."
Fisher was not alone. Drivers slowed down as they passed him—"Do you need a doctor?" they yelled—but no one helped him. At one point, in fact, a man parked and climbed out of his car but refused Fisher's pleas for help: "No way!" the man shouted. "I'll keep the cars off you, but I ain't gettin' close to that accident." The man stayed to direct traffic. Byrd had pulled off the freeway immediately after the Bronco disappeared and phoned for help at a roadside call box. Then she walked down the embankment to help divert traffic, and she picked up the golf clubs that were strewn about. "There were little horse figures on the golf-club covers," she says.
Fisher worked alone. He had tried talking to the bloodied figure from the moment he came to his side. "Can you move your fingers? You'll be all right. Can you hear me?" There was never a response. "I remember vividly that he had little tears in his eyes where it looked like he was crying, and I thought, Maybe he can hear me. I said to him, 'Are you O.K.? Move your fingers.' I had my right hand on top of his head, holding that sweater on the cut, and then I let go of the sweater and slid my hand down and pinched his nose and put my ear up against his mouth to see if I could hear any breathing, and I could not. I also put my ear on his heart; I couldn't hear a heartbeat. I put my ear to his mouth one more time before I was going to do mouth-to-mouth and wiped the blood off his face a second time, because I was trying to decide, Am I going to give this guy CPR or not? He might have AIDS. I didn't know him from Joe Blow. Why should I take a chance with my life when this guy is already dead?"
Shoemaker's will to survive had been misjudged before. In the early morning hours of Aug. 19, 1931, in a two-room adobe shack in the dusty, one-horse west Texas town of Fabens, Shoemaker had been born so small, at one pound, 13 ounces—and with tiny, clawlike hands and a full head of black hair—that his mother, Ruby, thought he looked like a drowned rat. Doc McClain, who handled the delivery, had spanked him on the rear but couldn't get a sound. He had set the baby on the bed and declared, "That will never live." The boy's grandmother Maudie Harris had swept him up, washed him in the sink, swaddled him in a doll's blanket, lit the wood stove and set him in a shoe box on the open oven door. Two soundless hours later, Ruby had awakened, thinking that she had heard a field mouse screeching. It had only been the boy, at the unlikeliest beginning of a rich, most unlikely life. And now here he was, nearly 60 years later, wedged into a crushed piece of metal on a road in Southern California, with a total stranger leaning over him, ear to his mouth, listening....
"And then I heard a little gasp of air," Fisher says. "I thought, God, maybe he was just passed out and he'll start moving. But nothing like that happened. No response at all. And that's when I pushed on his chest cavity, and I got a little bit of an exhale. From that point on, he kind of developed it into a rhythm. I'd hear a little something from him, then I'd push in, hear something, and push in...."
Shoemaker's feeble breaths that night set him upon a struggle that has enriched his legend as the tough, unyielding stoic who has battled repeatedly to return to racing. In the hours after an ambulance whisked Shoemaker off to Glendora Community Hospital, his close friend and physician, Robert Kerlan, warned Bill's wife, Cindy, who was visiting friends in Ohio, that her husband might not make it through the night. Friends gathered in the waiting room, dreading the hospital's latest news update, which throughout the night never included a mention of paralysis. Finally, around 4:30 a.m., almost eight hours after Shoemaker arrived at the emergency room, Kerlan consulted with attending doctors, walked into the waiting room and announced to those keeping vigil, "He doesn't have any voluntary movement at this time, in either his arms or his legs."
Bill Shoemaker was a quadriplegic.
Two years have passed since that April night, but the terrible drama that began then continues to unfold. Sitting in his sip-and-puff wheelchair, Shoemaker, now 61, trains his horses every morning at Santa Anita, and from his specially built aerie in the clubhouse, he watches them run there in the afternoons. But he finds himself, too, at a place in life he has never been and where surely no one could imagine he would ever be—at the center of a bitter controversy that has turned him from a tragic, sympathetic figure into a target of public condemnation.
Immediately after the accident, friends and fans circled arms and closed around Shoemaker, embracing him with warmth and support. His big owners stuck with him—a testimony, in part, to his capable chief assistant, Paddy Gallagher—and waited for his promised return. A group of friends organized the Shoemaker Foundation and helped to endow it with nearly $2 million. The money has been used to help Shoemaker defray those medical expenses not covered by insurance and to assist other racetrackers with medical bills. The foundation also pays the salaries of Shoemaker's two attendants, Larry Cox and Alvin Lwin. The $9,500 wheelchair that he maneuvers by alternately blowing and drawing on a tube was a gift to him from the manufacturer. Even the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office showed sympathy. Suspecting that Shoemaker had been drinking, police had a blood sample drawn from him one hour and 38 minutes after he entered the emergency room. The sample showed that his blood-alcohol level was .13, or .05 above California's legal limit of .08. Nonetheless, a month after the accident the DA's office chose not to prosecute, as is its custom in single-car accidents in which only the driver is gravely injured.
So the subject of drinking was set aside. The one time it was raised again was almost six months after the accident, upon Shoemaker's triumphant return from rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo. During a well-attended press conference on Oct. 1, 1991, at Santa Anita, he recalled drinking only "two beers." As for the blood-sample reading of .13, he suggested that his medical attendants "had a lot of drugs in me that were alcohol-based...." His handling of the subject was disturbing to those who had hoped he would go public to warn against drinking and driving. But after months of difficult rehab at Craig, he appeared to be leaving the accident behind.
"You could tell he was a man in overwhelming pain, trying to sort out what all this meant and what it would mean," says Indira Lanig, one of his doctors at Craig. "We all define ourselves by things that we do, ways that we think, relationships that we have. Bill was an equestrian. He was beauty in motion. And now he had no motion. He was trying to sort these things out, looking inside himself, trying to figure out how to pull this one off."
While Shoemaker was sorting out his life, events were being set in motion that would redefine that life in the eyes of others. By late April, Cindy had asked the family's lawyer, Neil Papiano, a well-known Los Angeles attorney, to investigate the accident to determine who might be financially liable. That investigation culminated almost a year later, in the spring of 1992, when Papiano began pursuing the whole pharmacopoeia of legal remedies available to the victim of a one-car accident. He filed one lawsuit in California Superior Court seeking at least $20 million in damages from the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) for not having a guardrail on the highway from which Shoemaker had swerved that night. He filed a second seeking an unspecified sum for negligence from the health-care providers—the company whose ambulance took Shoemaker to the hospital in Glendora, the eight doctors involved in his treatment at that hospital and the hospital itself.
When the suits were reported in the news, the public reacted with outrage. On April 25, 1992, the sports section of the Los Angeles Times ran eight letters criticizing Shoemaker, especially for the suit against Caltrans—ultimately the taxpayers. The first one, from Warren Weber of Norco set the tone:
"As I was reading the sports page on April 18, I was sickened to read that Bill Shoemaker is suing the State of California over his accident.... Willie claims that the State...was negligent because it did not have rubber guardrails along the entire stretch of the roadway to keep drunks from running off the road.... What is it going to take to make this idiot and others like him realize they are responsible for their own actions?"
A San Bernardino man reminded Shoemaker how he had gambled in the 1986 Derby, when he sent Ferdinand along the rail, and then added: "Five years later, Mr. Shoemaker, you took another gamble. You got in your vehicle while having a blood-alcohol level of .13.... Blaming the state for your accident is absurd. I hope you gain back your self-respect and drop this ridiculous lawsuit."
A reader from Glendale wanted to know if a "greedy attorney" was behind the decision to bring suit, and another from Westminster asked why Ford had not been sued: "Shouldn't [Shoemaker's lawsuit] include Ford for not designing, his car to follow the road automatically?"
In fact, Papiano had not forgotten Ford. The Bronco II had been the subject of scores of lawsuits stemming from a claimed propensity to roll over, and now here was Papiano with a hero-victim who could make an embarrassing spectacle of the Bronco at a trial. In a March 18, 1992, letter that one lawyer describes as "a masterpiece of velvet extortion," Papiano advised Ford's general counsel, J.W. Martin, that "world famous jockey Bill Shoemaker was...involved in a serious rollover accident" in a Bronco II, that "any lawsuit in this matter would be one of high visibility and would command national attention" and that "we are convinced the injuries were the result of defective design in the Bronco II." While insisting that the Bronco is not defective, Ford's lawyers obviously saw nothing but high-profile misery in a Shoemaker lawsuit, and they quietly entered into negotiations with Papiano to work out a settlement. "For almost a year there was never an inkling that Ford was in this," says Gilbert Jones, the lawyer for anesthesiologist Paul Waters, one of the Glendora doctors being sued.
Indeed, the first that Caltrans learned about Ford's talks with Papiano came when the state's principal attorney on the case, Christopher Hiddleson, received a letter in December from one of Ford's lawyers, Keith Sipprelle, advising Hiddleson that the company and Shoemaker had reached an agreement and requesting that the state agree to keep the terms of it a secret. Hiddleson flatly refused. "My client, the People of the State of California, will not enter into any agreement which prohibits public disclosure of the terms of the settlement between Ford Motor Company and the Shoemaker family," he replied in January.
Hiddleson says that if the Bronco does have a design defect, as Papiano had charged in his March 18, 1992, letter, then the people ought to know about it. Ford then challenged Caltrans in Superior Court, filing a motion requesting that the terms of its settlement with Shoemaker remain secret. The motion was denied.
The news of that settlement exposed Ford to precisely the sort of public censure that it had been trying to avoid. Under the terms of the deal, which has yet to be approved in court as required by California law, Ford would give the Shoemakers $1 million outright—$900,000 to Bill, $75,000 to Cindy and $25,000 to Amanda—and then guarantee him another $1.5 million if he pursues his suit against Caltrans. Should he prevail in his other suit, against the health-care providers, the amount of any award would be deducted from the $1.5 million. There is also a provision that the guarantee from Ford would be "reduced to zero" if Shoemaker either 1) reaches any settlement with Caltrans or 2) drops the suit against Caltrans. Hiddleson says that while the state has no intention of settling, he is outraged that should Shoemaker drop the suit against Caltrans he would get none of the money from Ford. In essence, Ford is giving Shoemaker and Papiano a $1.5 million incentive to sue the state, thus deflecting attention away from any alleged defects in the Bronco and toward alleged defects in highway design.
Thus Ford became Papiano's partner in going after the state, the hospital, the doctors and the ambulance company. In fact, Ford's motion for settlement, filed in February, reads in part like a battle plan for Shoemaker's case against everyone else—complete with highway design specifications and medical records. Asserting that Ford bears "no real responsibility for Shoemaker's injuries," the motion goes on to say that the injuries "resulted from a combination of his own negligence in driving his vehicle while intoxicated, the State's creation of a dangerous condition at the accident location by failing to install guardrailing adjacent to the roadway's north shoulder, and the failure of the Medical Defendants to meet the standard of care with respect to their treatment of Shoemaker...."
A year ago Papiano was threatening to sue Ford. Now his firm is allied with the automaker. Nowhere is that shift more graphically illuminated than in the juxtaposition of two documents, both emanating from Papiano's firm. In his 1992 letter to Ford, Papiano wrote (italics added), "...we have conducted an extensive investigation which has revealed that the defective design and manufacture of the Ford Bronco II was a substantial factor in causing Mr. Shoemaker's injuries." By December, Ford and Papiano had reached an agreement, and now they were ganging up on the others. On March 4, one of Papiano's law partners, Arnold Larson, declared to the court in support of the settlement (italics added): "Based on the information presently known to this firm, we do not believe the Ford defendants to be the parties who are most culpable for Shoemaker's injuries. To the contrary, the combined shares of fault of the non-settling defendants appear to exceed that of the settling defendants by a substantial margin."
After the L.A. Times broke the story revealing the settlement's terms, Shoemaker once again took a public pounding remarkable for its fury and scope. Bill Dwyre, the Times's sports editor, says, "We got more letters on Shoemaker in those two spurts [last April and this February and March] than we got when Magic Johnson stood up and said he had the AIDS virus or when he retired and unretired. And it wasn't an organized campaign. People were mad."
In a batch of five letters carried in the Feb. 27 Times, a reader from Saugus scolded Shoemaker—"Accept it, Shoe, you screwed up"—and denounced Ford as "gutless" for settling. In a state so utterly dependent on the automobile and at a time of heightened public condemnation of drinking and driving, Shoemaker's lawsuits touched off tremors of uncommon intensity.
Few people are openly critical of Shoemaker for suing the health providers. Virtually all the wrath has been directed at the suit that Ford is pushing him to pursue, the one that will cost the taxpayers if he wins. Citing the Ford motion for settlement, in which the company blamed everyone but itself, Papiano says that the state violated its own standards in not putting a guardrail at the stretch of road where the accident occurred, particularly with so precipitous an embankment beyond a "modest" nine-foot shoulder. Says Papiano, "Without question, if there had been a guardrail there, [Shoemaker] would not have gone over the embankment. He would have bounced back onto the freeway."
Whether Shoemaker was drunk or sober, says Papiano, the blame for the accident lies with the state. "Overpervading all of this," he says, "is the fact that drunk driving, though it may be emotional, has absolutely nothing to do with this case."
Hiddleson has been outspoken about Shoemaker's drinking, and Papiano says that the state has attempted to raise the issue to divert attention from the guardrail. Says Papiano, "They're saying, 'He was drinking. We don't have to look out for his safety, so let him die.' They're trying, immorally and unethically, to incite the public against him. Clearly, if the state had a guardrail, Bill would be walking today; it has nothing to do with drinking."
While insisting on that, however, Papiano has strived mightily to discredit the .13 blood-alcohol finding, elaborating on what Shoemaker himself said at that Santa Anita press conference: that he somehow may have been given alcohol-based drugs once he received medical attention. Noting dryly that vodka "is not part of an IV," Jones, the anesthesiologist's lawyer, says, "That's absolute nonsense." While Shoemaker's blood-alcohol level is immaterial in his case against the doctors, it is expected to form the core of the state's defense. Says Hiddleson, "The only dangerous condition that existed was that the driver of the vehicle was asleep at the switch—pilot error. That roadway is straight and one of the safest in the entire state. You get behind the wheel of a vehicle when you're intoxicated, you're basically a ticking time bomb waiting to go off, particularly when you have a blood-alcohol level as high as Mr. Shoemaker's."
According to a Glendora Community Hospital lab report, it was a good deal higher than the .13 found in the sample taken by the police. Hospital records reveal that the first blood was drawn from Shoemaker at 8:45 p.m., only 10 minutes after he was wheeled into the emergency room—when all he had been given was a saline intravenous solution in the ambulance—and that his blood-alcohol level at that time was .196, considerably more than twice the legal limit. And this, says Hiddleson, was already an hour after he had left the country club, during which time some of the alcohol would have been metabolized and after his blood had been diluted by the IV. Hiddleson adds that Bittle, the country-club bartender, has identified the drinks, the beer and the three martinis, that Shoemaker had that evening.
"It stretches credulity to believe that somebody with that kind of blood-alcohol level drove off the road because they were reaching for a car telephone and not because they were drunk," Hiddleson says. "[Shoemaker] either fell asleep or passed out. Bill Shoemaker had an accident because he was drunk. He is denying that, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, and Californians are sick and tired of it."
The Shoemaker affair has left those who have known him for years with an uneasy ambivalence—with an old affection for the man and sorrow at the harsh assaults upon his name, and yet with dismay at seeing him not own up to his part in what happened to him. "Everybody was heartbroken about Shoe's accident, even after they read of the intoxication," says Marje Everett, a former CEO of Hollywood Park who has known Shoemaker since 1949. "But once the suit was filed, it changed a lot of people's attitude about him. They lost that compassion. He worked all his life to build up a reputation and a quality about himself...to have it wiped out overnight?"
Shoemaker knows what the letters to the Times have been saying, and he blinks and darts his eyes and wrinkles his face when the subject is raised. "I don't think they understand the implications of the whole thing," he says hesitantly. "I can't talk about it now because of the lawsuits."
Why he has filed them and pursued them has been the subject of much speculation, the chief of which is simply that he needs the money. While Shoemaker made millions, he has also been a formidable spender. He has been through one extremely expensive divorce—from his second wife, Babbs, in 1978—and he has sustained a lavish life-style that includes supporting his current wife and their child in their hobby of showing horses. Meanwhile, as a trainer, his income is nowhere near what it was when he was riding. In 1990, his first year as a trainer, his gross earnings were $32,000. They rose to $70,000 in 1991 (his career was taking off when the accident occurred) then fell to $40,000 last year.
He rises early now to get to the barn and train his horses—he's down to 23—and he spends most of his time between sets in the office of his barn, watching through the door as his horses are walked around the shed, chatting with his exercise riders and talking on a phone with a headset. Now and then Gallagher, his assistant, stops to confer with him. At least twice a day, with the help of an attendant, he boards his customized Plymouth Grand Voyager van and rides the 200 or so yards to the main track to see his horses work. He rolls out the van door and winds through the crowds gathered at Clockers' Corner, like an old jockey navigating through traffic, changing speeds and direction by working the plastic straw attached to the driving mechanism of the chair. Jockeys and trainers and jocks' agents nod. "Morning, Bill," they say.
Often, people he has known for years look shy and awkward when they see him coming. "It's a natural thing when a guy sees me like this," he says. "I try to make them feel as much at home as possible. Talk with 'em. Kid with 'em. A lot of people act just like they used to."
Like his old cohort, Whittingham. One early morning, at Clockers' Corner, Whittingham spotted Shoemaker in the back of the apron against the grandstand. "How's my jockey?" he asked.
"O.K.," said Shoe. "You?"
"I got one for you to ride today in the fifth," Whittingham said with a wink.
Shoemaker grinned. "Wish I could," he said. "Yeah, I'd like that."
Whittingham wandered away, and Shoemaker glanced up at his attendant Cox. "Give me a little coffee, will ya?" he asked.
"You want a muffin or a banana?" Cox asked.
"Half a muffin would be good," he said. A few minutes later Cox was back at Shoemaker's side, alternately holding the coffee and muffin to his mouth, so he could sip and nibble. "Larry, zip this jacket for me," Shoemaker said. He relies totally on those around him for his needs, from blowing his nose to scratching an itch. His day is a litany of small favors quietly asked: "Larry, call the house" and "Larry, can you shave me now?" and "Larry, give me a cough, will you?" Phlegm builds up in his trachea, and Cox has to push on his chest to clear it.
What he can still do now, he says, is train a racehorse. "Some people think I can't do it anymore," he says, "but I can train as well now as I ever did. I can still see, and training is a seeing game."
He wards off self-pity with stoicism—"You have to play the hand you're dealt," he says, "and I was dealt this one"—and attends physical-therapy sessions two or three times a week in hopes that he can regain some use of his arms. He can twitch the muscle next to the thumb of his right hand, and he has feeling now in one of his biceps. Sitting in front of his fireplace at home recently, he felt the warmth on his face. "Fire feels good," he said. "My body thermostat is all screwed up because of, ah, this condition. I get chills. It doesn't adjust with the weather. Sometimes it's hot outside, and I'm cold; sometimes it's cold, and I'm hot." Looking at Cox, he said, "Larry, you can take my jacket off...."
Shoemaker misses riding his own horses and taking off his own jacket and picking up a banana and holding a warm cup of coffee in his own warm hands. "I miss all the little things," he says. "I miss brushing my teeth, combing my hair, taking a shower by myself. Pouring a glass of water. I'm told that I should have use of my upper body, but I lost that in the hospital. If that's true, I'm damn mad about it. If only I could get my arms going...."
The question of whether Shoemaker was quadriplegic when he entered Glendora Community Hospital—or whether, due to malpractice, he became a quad between his arrival at 8:35 p.m. and 4:10 a.m.—is the central issue of Papiano's case against the medical defendants. Papiano argues that notes taken that night reveal that Shoemaker had some movement in his shoulders after his arrival; that almost four hours after his arrival, the early X-rays done on his cervical spine were termed "not adequate" by a consulting neurosurgeon, Celedonio Fernando, because they did not reveal the fracture; and that at no time until Fernando looked at new X-rays, at 4:10 a.m., was Shoemaker diagnosed as quadriplegic. Papiano says that hospital documents show that it was only at that late hour that Fernando finally saw a new set of X-rays and scribbled the note, "Patient a quadriplegic now. C-Spine reveals a dislocation of C-6/C-7 to about [4/5] vertical width."
"We did nothing to him that, in any way, shape or form, harmed him," says Robert Reback, Fernando's lawyer. "His course was set when he rolled over and hit his head."
"The man was a quadriplegic from the time he was found by the paramedics," says Michael O'Flaherty, counsel for the hospital. "This is a really bogus claim."
If that is so, Papiano says, "Why didn't somebody say it for eight hours in their treatment reports? For eight hours they were so incompetent they didn't recognize he was a quadriplegic?"
Papiano refers to the written reports of two attending doctors—Leslie Wise, the emergency-room physician, and the consulting cardiologist, Demetrio Hechanova—to support his claim that Shoemaker had movement. Shortly after 9 p.m., according to Wise's report, he and Hechanova tried several times unsuccessfully to insert an IV needle into the subclavian vein, below the right clavicle. Noted Wise, "I was in the vein one time, but the patient rolled his shoulders and pulled the needle out and I was unable to reinsert it." About 45 minutes later, after anesthesiologist Waters intubated Shoemaker (i.e., put a tube in his trachea so he could breathe), Hechanova noted, "He was moving his neck and head and talked coherently until he was orally intubated."
Papiano says that the intubation enhanced the injury. "He was moving and talking coherently until, repeat, until he was intubated," says Papiano. "After that he wasn't talking coherently, and he wasn't moving. Guess why? Know how you put a tube down the throat? You twist the neck to open the pipeline. If somebody has any kind of neck injury, you don't twist the neck."
"That's all nonsense," says Jones, Waters's lawyer. First of all, he says, Shoemaker could not talk once he was intubated because it's impossible to talk with a tube down your throat. Shoemaker was intubated, Jones says, because he was having difficulty breathing, was turning blue and needed his airway opened. "It was absolutely life-threatening," Jones says. As for Papiano's allegation that Waters twisted Shoemaker's neck, Jones says, "Absolutely false. All you have to do is open the mouth by pulling down the jaw. You do not have to move the head and neck to intubate, and Dr. Waters did not." Furthermore, says O'Flaherty, "there is absolutely nothing to document any movement by Mr. Shoemaker that he doesn't demonstrate today."
The discovery process in Shoemaker's suit against the medical defendants has just begun—only two doctors have so far been deposed—and a trial is months, perhaps years, away. But Papiano is hammering at the obvious failure to produce an X-ray of the critical fracture in the first eight hours. "Damn right, the X-rays were inadequate," he says. Which, says Papiano, led to a tardy diagnosis. Even so, the lawyers for the health providers say, there is no indication in the records that Shoemaker ever had movement in any of his extremities. And in order to win the case, Papiano must show that the doctors actually did something to enhance the trauma. Echoing most of the medical defendants' lawyers, Jones says, "I feel sorry for Bill Shoemaker. I really do. But it was 100 percent his own doing. The doctors saved this man's life."
In the midst of all the turmoil around him, the lawsuits and the letters to the editor, the painful memories and awkward silences and public acrimony, this kind and simple horseman has been cherishing a very old dream, this thing he has held on to for years. Long before he quit riding, somewhere between his third and fourth Kentucky Derby winners, he was musing about one day coming to Churchill Downs with a good 3-year-old. "I've ridden enough Derby winners," he said then. "Someday I'd like to go back there to train one." On Feb. 27, as he watched from his perch at Santa Anita, his 3-year-old chestnut colt, Diazo, came charging from just off the pace to win his first start this year by almost four lengths. And there went Shoemaker, with Lwin pushing him, rolling through the crowds toward the winner's circle.
"Congratulations," said the colt's owner, Allen Paulson. "And thank you, Bill."
Diazo had raced the seven furlongs in 1:22 flat, sharp time, and it was only a harbinger. On March 21 he won his second start even more emphatically, taking a 1[1/16]-mile allowance race by 3½ lengths in 1:42⅕ a time that put him among the best 3-year-olds this year. And all at once, out of this long, blue winter, Shoemaker was on his way to the Downs for the Derby. You can almost see him sipping and puffing his way into the winner's circle, to an ovation that would make the old spires tremble and lift off. "Wouldn't that be great?" the Shoe said. "Wouldn't that be somethin'?"
"The road was nearly deserted, and Shoemaker took his eyes off it for only a moment."
"Some people think I can't do it anymore," Shoemaker says, "but I can train as well now as I ever did. I can still see, and training is a seeing game."
"He was a perfectly built Tom Thumb of a man, all of 4'11" and 95 pounds, balanced on the backs of half-ton animals."
"He left with his scars and his calcium deposits, but he had escaped the fate that all riders dread more keenly than death."
"Papiano began pursuing the legal remedies available to the victim of a one-car accident."