This is not a sentimental crowd. Ask the bettors at Santa Anita about the weather or their favorite horse and you can't even get them to pry their noses out of the Daily Racing Form.
But ask them about jockey-turned-trainer Bill Shoemaker, paralyzed after a car accident last Monday, and a lot of them get a misty look. "I've seen him ride many a horse, old Willy," said Bob Costello, a La Mirada used car salesman.
This was three days after the accident, and the Arcadia racetrack crowd was still murmuring about Shoemaker, who won 8,833 races in a 41-year career before retiring last year.
You couldn't get away from it. The Racing Form headline--"SHOEMAKER PARALYZED"--was flashing through the clubhouse, in the grandstands and along the homestretch rail.
Santa Anita is Shoemaker Country. There are portraits of him on the clubhouse wall and a bronze bust of him on the lawn next to the paddock, where someone had deposited a little nosegay of roses.
"The first horse I ever bet on was ridden by Shoe," said Costello, a bulky man with a halo of crinkly hair. "Right here, Hob Cow Sage, 1951. I remember it as if it were yesterday."
A lot of the talk was about how Shoemaker was struck down--not in the saddle but in the driver's seat of a Ford Bronco.
"Out here on a horse, you're a little bit more prepared for it," said Phil Ashland, a former jockey who works as a Santa Anita usher. "Something goes wrong and you think about how to get off. You do it instinctively. You're doing it before you even think about it."
But driving a car is something else. According to the CHP, Shoemaker rolled over an embankment in a one-car accident on Highway 30 in San Dimas. Authorities have said that he had drunk enough alcohol to be cited as a drunk driver.
In the stables, Shoemaker's absence was felt the strongest. "I'll tell you in two words what most people's reaction is," said trainer Roger Stein, for whom Shoemaker rode four winners during the last three years of his career. "It hurts. There haven't been many smiles. Shoemaker was to racing what Muhammad Ali was to boxing and what Babe Ruth was to baseball."
Added trainer Charles Pinnell: "People don't go around talking about it but they feel it inside."
Grooms Eugenio Gonzalez and Regino Morales were soaping down a horse named Festive Warmth, who had just finished out of the money in the second race. "We all want him to come back soon," said Gonzalez fervently.
"Everybody's pretty upset," said groom Tom McQueen. "I think he's one of the greatest men I personally have ever known."
Bugler Jay Cohen reminisced about Shoemaker's generosity. "I wanted a picture with Shoe, and there was no question," said Cohen, his five-foot bugle tucked under one arm. "He just stopped what he was doing and came over to have his picture taken. Everybody knew who Shoe was, unless you lived in a cave."
But sentiment goes only so far at the track. A Shoemaker-trained entrant in the sixth race, a powerful-looking black horse named Ski Bar, was 6-to-1 in the morning line and 7-to-1 at post time.
Costello, the experienced handicapper, dismissed Ski Bar's chances. "I'd never bet on him for sentiment," he said. Then he changed his mind and rushed off to bet the horse.
Long Beach accountant George Whitmore, savoring a $314 exacta win in the fifth race, sniffed skeptically at the Shoemaker horse. "The thing is, Shoemaker's not riding him," he said.
Ski Bar, ridden by Eddie Delahoussaye, lagged in the middle of the pack, made a move to the front in the stretch, then faded to finish out of the money.