10/15/2003 11:00PM

Like Midas, Shoe had golden touch

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NEW YORK - The Touch.

Bill Shoemaker's physique led to his style. He wasn't tall enough to reach up on a horse's neck and apply some push, like many of his colleagues. Instead, he developed a technique of sitting back and directing his mounts with a feathery touch. There was no pressure on their sensitive mouths and for the most part they ran with a sense of exuberance.

They ran with him, not for him, and they carried him to the heights of his profession. He rode so many brilliant races that it is not possible to compile a list. Two will always stand out.

Shoe's mount, Forego, was favored to win the Marlboro Cup of 1976 but was asked to carry 137 pounds, while Honest Pleasure, the 3-year-old champion and easy winner of the Travers, carried 119, a difference of 18 pounds. Honest Pleasure led from the outset, with Forego far back in a field of 11. Shoe didn't want to check with so much weight up so he raced wide. Forego gave it all he had and wore the leader down to score by a head.

The first Arlington Million in 1981 was even more dramatic. An imported horse, The Bart, set the pace while the favorite, John Henry, was far back with Shoemaker in a field of 12. Heavy rains softened the turf course and John Henry wasn't happy with conditions. Shoe waited as long as he dared, then moved, but as late as midstretch he appeared to have no chance. Neither horse nor rider ever gave up and John Henry won by a nose in the final jump.

Shoe, who died last weekend at his home in San Marino, Calif., at 72, had an affinity for horses that was constantly expressing itself in different ways. There was a remarkable afternoon at Washington Park in 1955 when Swaps was preparing for his celebrated match race with Nashua by running in the American Derby. In the post parade, Shoe unexpectedly left his spot and guided Swaps to the rail where thousands of Chicagoans gathered to see the race.

As Swaps stood patiently, one fan after another followed up on Shoe's suggestion and petted Swaps on the nose. The red horse never turned a hair or twitched a muscle.

After several minutes, Shoe eased Swaps away from the rail, rejoined the post parade, and went on to post a handy victory over hard-hitting Traffic Judge. Swaps learned his lessons from trainer Mesh Tenney but Tenney insisted on Shoe's participation for all important occasions.

In the spring of 1965, Frank Catrone was training Lucky Debonair for the Kentucky Derby. One evening during Derby week, Shoe, accompanied by the retired riding ace Eddie Arcaro and prominent Kentucky veterinarian Dr. Alex Harthill, attended a formal dinner at the Mayflower Hotel in Louisville. The party was a rousing success and the evening sped by. Harthill, who attended to Lucky Debonair, said he would go to Churchill Downs to observe the colt's blowout for the Derby.

It was still dark when the trio pulled up to the barn. Shoe said he would like to ride Lucky Debonair in the blowout, and still dressed in his tuxedo, mounted the colt and took him to the track. With Arcaro and Harthill voicing encouragement, Shoe and Lucky Debonair completed the blowout in complete darkness. They must have done well, for a few days later they won the Kentucky Derby.

Shoe rode four Derby winners but he might have won several more. The incident with Gallant Man in 1957 when he misjudged the finish line to be beaten an inch by Iron Liege was a heartbreaker. The same can be said about the 1975 Derby in which Shoe's mount, Avatar, went to the lead in midstretch, only to be bumped off stride by Diabolo. Avatar finished second to Foolish Pleasure.

But his record was so imposing that a few more honors wouldn't have made a bit of difference.

He was a giant of his time, a very classy man, and a good friend.