Someone should have flashed the inquiry sign last week. Alfred (Shelly) Shelhamer, who had cancer, died at 67, and it was much too soon for him to go.
Shelhamer was a peerless steward who had more races to judge, a matchless storyteller who had many more stories to tell. It was the wrong time for Shelly's number to come down.
At the funeral in Inglewood the other day, big little men--jockeys and ex-jockeys like Shelhamer--came. Among them was one of the shortest and one of the best, Hall of Famer Johnny Adams, 71.
The sight of Adams immediately brought to mind the grainy, black and white film that Shelhamer dusted off and brought to Santa Anita several months ago. It was footage of Shelhamer's last ride, a race at Santa Anita in December of 1945.
Johnny Adams was the star of that reel, which Shelhamer showed with relish. Most anybody else would have burned the film and tried to forget everything that was in it.
Shelhamer was no masochist. It was just that he liked to show the film because it showed the alertness of Adams. They were part of a five-horse spill at the three-eighths pole, Shelhamer's mount having suffered a broken back. The horse fell on Shelhamer and, unable to move, was crushing the 110-pound jockey.
"Now look here," Shelhamer said, becoming the film's narrator. "Look what Johnny does."
Adams emerges from the mass of horses and jockeys, grabs Shelhamer's horse by the tail and practically lifts the animal off the pinned jockey.
But for Adams' heroics, Shelhamer's number would have come down that day. As it was, he broke his collarbone, shoulder blade and 11 ribs.
At least the painful accident shoved Shelhamer into a second career, that of a racing official, and it was one that he handled with distinction. In particular, Shelhamer was dedicated to the improvement of the film patrol, which he saw not only as a steward's tool, but also as an aid for young jockeys trying to improve.
Shelhamer was one of the three stewards who had to sort out the finish of racing's first $3-million race, the Breeders' Cup Classic at Hollywood Park in 1984.
About half a length separated the first three finishers, and you couldn't have slipped a page of the Daily Racing Form between Wild Again and Slew o' Gold and between Slew o' Gold and Gate Dancer when that trio hit the wire.
The stewards spent eight minutes reviewing the finish, finally allowing Wild Again's win to stand and penalizing Gate Dancer from second to third for crowding from the outside. Not long afterward, a reporter raced upstairs, to the stewards' booth above the press box.
Many a racing official would have waved away an intruder to this sanctuary, but not Shelhamer. Smiling that toothy smile, he welcomed the chance to give the rationale behind the decision.
"Cue up the seventh," Shelhamer shouted into an intercom, and when the stretch run of the Classic appeared on a monitor, he again turned narrator.
"Watch the path of Wild Again, on the rail," he said. "They're at the sixteenth pole, now watch as they keep coming. He's crowding Slew o' Gold just a little bit, but the jockey (Pat Day) isn't whipping, and now watch Gate Dancer on the outside. He's coming in on Slew o' Gold and causing all the congestion."
Shelhamer had the tape stopped as the horses hit the finish line. Then he went to the monitor with a pencil and pointed out the tire tracks of tractors that graded the track before the race. The tracks were parallel to the inside rail.
"Use those tracks as a guide," Shelhamer said. "Look--Wild Again is 10 feet closer to the rail than where he was in mid-stretch. Now look at Gate Dancer; he came so far over that he wound up in the path where Wild Again was to begin with."
These same salient points were made the next morning, when the disgruntled owners of Slew o' Gold and Gate Dancer appealed the stewards' decision. The appellants left the film room after about an hour, not totally satisfied, but at least in agreement with the method the stewards used to make their call. It may have been the first time tire tracks had been used to determine the outcome of a big race.
Shelhamer was more than an astute steward, he was a bottomless source for newspapermen. His anecdotes came in cornucopias and he seemed to unconsciously categorize them to suit the occasion.
A Baltimore turf writer would show up and Shelhamer would automatically regale him with stories about well known Maryland horsemen. For a writer from Kentucky, he would pull up tales about Keeneland and Churchill Downs.
Earlier this year, a reporter was doing a story on a young one-eyed jockey who was having difficulty getting licensed in Kentucky. Calling Shelhamer, he asked: "Know about any good one-eyed jockeys in days gone by?"
Answered Shelhamer: "How about Walter Blum, for openers? He's a one-eyed steward now, of course."
Shelhamer knew about Walter Blum what Johnny Sellers and other jockeys of Blum's day didn't know--that he rode more than 4,300 winners while being blind one eye.