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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!"
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?"