10/22/2003 12:00AM

Life and loss under red skies

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Southern California is on fire again, so it must be time for a Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita Park.

When the international racing carnival last hit the Santa Anita side of town 10 years ago, the mountains rimming the L.A. basin were alive with the flames of a dozen distinct conflagrations. More fires burned to the south in Orange County, but the most dramatic - at least from the vantage point of Breeders' Cup participants - was the Sierra Madre fire that destroyed 151 homes in the foothills above the racetrack.

Hot and tinder-dry conditions were ripe for another outbreak this week, so it came as no real surprise Tuesday afternoon when the skies to the east, west, and south of Santa Anita filled with the sickly, reddish-gray smoke of brush in full burn. October in Southern California can be a very mean season.

The drama was not lost on the thousand or so faithful fans and friends of the family who gathered in the Santa Anita stands late Tuesday afternoon to spend a few precious moments in remembrance of Bill Shoemaker. Natural disasters mixed well with the emotions of personal loss.

The indomitable spirit of Bill Shoemaker permeates Santa Anita, from the histories of its greatest races, to the statuary in the paddock gardens, to the oldest corners of the jockeys' room, where Shoemaker reigned as a benign, accessible king and played his schoolboy pranks.

Shoemaker's death on the morning of Oct. 12, at age 72, trumped the sense of loss pervading the Southern California racing world since the summer of 2002, when a healthy Chris McCarron retired from riding. That was followed by career-ending injuries to Eddie Delahoussaye and Laffit Pincay, and the near-fatal experience of Gary Stevens in August at Arlington Park. Suddenly, everyone felt very mortal.

Shoemaker's death, however, rang a bell of finality. An era had ended, one populated by such formidable personalities as Charlie Whittingham, Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longden, and Lazaro Barrera. The history of horse racing had come to a natural divide - those lucky enough to have lived in the time of Bill Shoemaker now had to deal with what comes next.

Tuesday's ceremony was anchored with dignity by Hollywood Park's Mike Willman. Amy Zimmerman's Santa Anita television team put together a full-blooded video montage of Shoemaker's life, highlighted by priceless archival film shot by the late Joe Burnham. An eloquent eulogy was delivered by John Gosden, the British trainer whose California career was graced by Shoemaker's friendship, as well as his active participation in a number of stakes wins.

The congregation was shaken briefly by the tearful appearance of Don Pierce, Shoemaker's closest running mate for 40 years and a ferociously competitive jockey in his time. Pierce could barely deliver his tribute, leading once again to the nagging question: What happens when the tough guy cries?

It was, however, that Mount Rushmore of riders - Pincay, Delahoussaye, McCarron, and Stevens - who stepped up to say what needed to be said, leaving no doubt as to the impact of their departed friend.

"Before Shoemaker, with very few exceptions, jockeys got little respect," McCarron said. "Shoe forced people to respect jockeys. They couldn't help respecting jockeys after what he did on the track, and off the track."

True to form, Delahoussaye offered no frills. "I love him, and I'll miss him," he said. Then he read a poem titled "I'm Free," which contained the lines, "If parting has left a void / then fill it with remembered joy."

"He was a great friend," Pincay said. "He's probably laughing at all of us sitting in the sun sweating, while he's having a drink with Charlie."

Ten years ago, when the Breeders' Cup was at Santa Anita Park, trainer Bill Shoemaker sent out Diazo, who finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Shoe had been in a wheelchair for two years, but that did not stop him from being part of the biggest day of the season.

Pincay, in addition to riding Diazo, won the Juvenile Fillies that day aboard Phone Chatter. Delahoussaye won the Distaff on Hollywood Wildcat (after dropping his stick) and the Sprint on Cardmania from out of the clouds. McCarron endured tough losses in both the Distaff, on Paseana, and the Turf, aboard Bien Bien, while Stevens took the Juvenile with Brocco and thought he was home and dry in the Classic on Bertrando, until the French longshot Arcangues ran them down.

It was Stevens who sounded the sweetest note as he concluded his remembrance of his days as a young kid from Idaho learning the ropes at Shoemaker's knee. Everyone knew that Shoemaker lasted as long as he did in a quadraplegic state because he did not want to miss the formative years of his daughter, now 23.

Looking down at Amanda Shoemaker, a poised young woman who trains hunters and jumpers at a San Francisco-area stable, Stevens spoke for all of racing when he said, "Thank you, Amanda, for giving us 12 more years with your dad."