Through the past year and a half Kerlan has had more public attention than ever, thanks to Bill Shoemaker, who has run into a spate of bad luck after more than 19 years of riding without a serious accident. In the winter of 1968 Shoemaker had a wicked fracture of his thighbone when his horse fell at Santa Anita.
After examining the injury Kerlan told him there were two choices. He could have the bone set by traction measures and then remain in traction in bed for 10 weeks. After that the leg would be in a cast for another three months. Or Kerlan could perform an open reduction and run a pin through the marrow of the bone to hold it in place. Though the latter might involve more complications, Kerlan pointed out, it offered the better chance of quick recovery since the muscles would not atrophy as much. Shoe chose the pin.
Even so, it was almost a year before Shoe was back in the saddle. He started with a bang, riding three winners out of three mounts on his first day back at Santa Anita last February, but his return to steady form was slower. By April he was at last nearing full strength again—with just a slight limp—when, in a freak accident at Hollywood Park, a filly reared up and fell over on him in the paddock, fracturing his pelvis and damaging some internal organs. This time there was no question of what to do; Kerlan put him in a cast for the fracture, while a urologist handled the internal problems.
"Kerlan was the carpenter, and the other guy was the plumber," Shoe likes to say. This time the healing has been more rapid.
Just being with Shoemaker was a labor of love for Kerlan, for his abiding interest in racing goes back to his boyhood. Young Bob was a strapping lad, who grew rapidly to 6'3" and 220 pounds, and when he wasn't helping his father on the lonely trips to faraway patients he was playing all the sports and following the horses at the county fair in summertime. Later, as an intern at County Hospital, he discovered Santa Anita and the Racing Form.
"Once I got interested," he says, "the next logical step was to have a horse. First I went into partnership on a horse with a guy named Charlie Russell, but later I decided I wanted horses of my own. From then until I lost a horse at this last meeting at Santa Anita, I've always had at least one thoroughbred in training and sometimes two or three. I've had thoroughbreds every way—I've bred them, I've bought them at yearling sales, I've bought them privately, I've claimed them—and I've never had a horse that ran as high as an allowance race. Ever. They were all claimers. I've won a few races, but damn few. Anyway, I've learned a lot." Kerlan laughs, as if it were some kind of marvelous joke on himself.
"Once I claimed a horse that had lost 54 consecutive races. I knew he was a bleeder, but he had some class, and I thought he could be treated. I had a lot of confidence in my trainer, Jimmy Jordan, so we laid the horse up and treated him with vitamin K and things like that for three or four months. I got very interested in what to do for bleeding horses, and some radiologist friends of mine thought that if you could get a tumor dose of X ray into a horse's turbinates in his nose where the bleeding arises, you could probably sizzle all those vessels and they'd never bleed again.
"In fact, we were even going to put some gunnysacks on his feet and have somebody lead the horse into the radiology lab next door to my office in the medical center one night and have somebody hold a switch with a leaded glove and give him some X ray in the office. One of the partners decided against it, because we were going to have to take part of the door off to get him in.
"We finally started him on the first of January at Santa Anita—Lightning Jack was his name—and he won that very first start and paid $18.40. The next time we got Shoemaker to ride him, he ran into a blind switch at the quarter pole and ran out of the money. Shoemaker said later that if he hadn't he should have won by five lengths."
Kerlan's newest hobby is harness horses. He is a stockholder and director of the Western Harness Racing Association, which is just branching out into night racing in California, and together with half a dozen of his jollier friends he has a partnership in something called Twilight Farms, which owns 12 standardbred racing and broodmares.