10/15/2003 12:00AM

Lifetime's worth of great rides


ARCADIA, Calif. - It can be argued that Bill Shoemaker's greatest ride came on the summer day in 1991 when, in the first months of his quadriplegic existence following his one-car wreck, he successfully negotiated the hallway of a Colorado rehabilitation hospital using the sip-and-puff mechanism of his customized wheelchair. Later, he became so adept at its operation that he could run right over the tip of your shoe and make you think it was an accident.

Shoemaker spent more than 12 years in that wheelchair before his death last Sunday. He leaves behind a wealth of memories - Shoemaker stories have been flying this week - and there are some that even the humble Shoemaker enjoyed chewing on more than others.

First and foremost, there was the 1986 Kentucky Derby. Shoemaker was 54 at the time, making moves like a kid without a care.

"It was probably his greatest ride, but I wish he'd saved it for another day," said Chris McCarron, who finished second in that Derby aboard Bold Arrangement.

"Shoe made three perfect decisions that day," McCarron began. "First, he took his horse back to last from the inside post, otherwise he might have been put over the fence on the first turn. Then he made a move down the backstretch, cutting inside horses when he needed to. Finally, there was his move to the rail in the stretch. My colt was busy battling Broad Brush, and we had him beat. Then I look over and there's that little sonofagun going by us. I thought, 'Where'd he come from?' "

The companion piece to the 1986 Derby was the 1987 Breeders' Cup Classic at Hollywood Park, which hopefully will be highlighted during the NBC telecast of the Breeders' Cup on Oct. 25. Ferdinand and Shoemaker teamed to defeat Alysheba and McCarron in history's most exciting clash of Kentucky Derby winners.

"I could have gone to the lead at any time," Shoemaker said. "But I knew Ferdinand liked to pull himself up when he was in front. I knew Alysheba would be coming, but I had to wait as long as I could."

The sight of Shoemaker sitting chilly with barely a sixteenth of a mile to run in a $3 million race was unforgettable. When Shoemaker finally roused Ferdinand, the big red colt gave him just enough to win by a nose.

It was Shoemaker who rode Buckpasser to a nose victory over Abe's Hope in the 1966 Flamingo Stakes, dubbed the "Chicken Flamingo" because Hialeah management thought Buckpasser was such a lock that they made it a non-wagering event. Shoemaker was not fooled.

"The hardest race to win is the race you're supposed to win," he said.

John Henry was supposed to win the inaugural running of the Arlington Million in 1981, but all bets were scrambled when the course came up muddy and deep. John Henry hated the going, and Shoemaker knew it. But Shoe also knew his horse. Instead of pressing the issue, searching for good ground, or asking for too much, Shoemaker let John Henry get his sea legs. Ol' John found his rhythm just in time to catch The Bart on the line and win by a nose.

Shoemaker's work on Exceller in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup ranks with his best. That day, in the wind and rain, Seattle Slew (under Angel Cordero) and Affirmed splashed through the Belmont mud in fast early fractions, while Shoemaker found himself more than 30 lengths off the pace halfway through the race. Then they began to move.

"I knew Cordero would be looking for me," Shoemaker said. "He'd try to shut me off or carry me wide like he always does. So I put my horse right behind him, in his blind spot. When he looked for me over his right shoulder, I took my horse to the inside and went to the lead. Still, Seattle Slew came back to make it close." The margin was a nose.

Shoemaker's all-time favorite ride came in the 1962 San Juan Capistrano Handicap, when he nursed the hard-core miler Olden Times to a narrow win at nearly 1 3/4 miles. It was a race later that year, however, that will always rank among the greatest in the Shoemaker canon, when Shoemaker rode Belmont winner Jaipur for Moody Jolley in the Travers against the brilliant Ridan.

"Maybe there was never a race like it," wrote veteran turf journalist Russ Harris. "It simply isn't possible for two horses to throw hooks into each other for a solid 1 1/4 miles, going as hard as they can every inch of the route, without giving way in the stretch. . . . It isn't possible, but Jaipur and Ridan did it. I never saw a horse race like it, and I couldn't find anyone at Saratoga who had."

Jaipur beat Ridan by a bob of the nose.

"Jolley proclaimed that Shoemaker was worth five pounds over any other rider, and Jaipur had finished well behind Ridan in earlier starts with other riders," Harris added. "If you switch the riders, would Ridan have won the Travers? I would have run on that ticket."