08/16/2001 11:00PM

New generation still in awe of the master


DEL MAR, Calif. - Bill Shoemaker turns 70 on Sunday. He wasn't supposed to make it to the end of his first day.

He certainly figured that 59 was the end of the line in the spring of 1991, when his life hung by a thread in the emergency room of a suburban L.A. hospital. But he survived, just like he survived his premature birth, more than 40 years of riding, and that crippling highway wreck 10 years ago. He lives in a wheelchair. He can't move his arms or his legs. And on Sunday he turns 70.

"I didn't believe I was going to live this long, to tell you the truth," Shoemaker said on Friday morning. "If I'd known that, I'd have taken better care of myself."

The joke was familiar, but Shoe didn't care. He was recycling a line uttered frequently by his departed pal, Charlie Whittingham, who started using it about the time he turned 80. Old guys who have led the high life get to trot out such wisecracks when things start falling apart, just so the rest of us aren't tempted to show any pity. Worst birthday present you can give someone is pity.

Funny thing, though, Shoemaker needs to take very good care of himself these days just to get from one to the next. As a quadriplegic with mid-chest paralysis, he must submit to constant attention. In order to travel the 100 miles or so to Del Mar this weekend, his personal caretakers will pack up all manner of equipment and hygienic supplies, then set up shop in a strange place far from the accommodating environment of Shoemaker's modest San Marino home.

"People don't know half of what I go through all the time, just to take care of the physical needs of my body," Shoemaker said. "It's unbelievable." Hopefully, it will be worth it. Del Mar is an important place in Shoemaker's professional life, even though the six-day race week used to put a crimp in his golf schedule. He won his first meet title there in 1948 as an apprentice. In 1954 he set a record of 94 wins in 41 days. Then at Del Mar on Sept. 7, 1970, Shoemaker broke Johnny Long-den's record with win number 6,033. Del Mar management is doing its best to turn Pacific Classic Day into a celebration of Shoemaker's 70th. He will present the trophy to the Classic winner, right after he is honored with a race leading up to the Classic. The winner's circle will be filled with friends from the past - Johnny Longden, Bill Harmatz, Don Pierce - along with the current riding colony that includes fellow Hall of Famers Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens, and Laffit Pincay, and future Hall of Famers Alex Solis, Kent Desor-meaux, and Mike Smith.

Most of them know what it was like to compete against Shoemaker. They watched him work wonders with horses who were otherwise ordinary. They knew if Shoemaker had any chance, he would find a way to win. They tried to learn from his delicately balanced style, and they felt privileged to know him as a man.

"He floated on a horse," said Solis. "He always carried his own weight - never too far back or too far forward. I remember introducing myself to him when I first came to California. I told him to tell me when I was doing anything wrong. He said I couldn't be doing much wrong because he knew I'd been leading rider in Florida."

A generation of riders has grown to maturity now without the direct benefit of Shoemaker's presence. To them, Shoemaker is an image on the television screen, a name in the record books, an icon once removed from their realm of experience. Two of the best of the new breed will help celebrate Shoemaker's birthday on Sunday, and then suit up for the million-dollar Classic.

"I love to watch his ride on Ferdinand in the Derby," said Victor Espinoza, who rides Captain Steve in the Classic. "He is so patient. So smooth."

At 5-foot-1, the 29-year-old Espinoza is only three inches taller than Shoemaker. He did not win his first race until May 1992, and by that time Shoemaker had been retired for more than two years, ending his career with 8,833 winners.

"Watching his races, I am always impressed how he would hold the horse until the very last minute, and know exactly where the wire was," Espinoza said. "Those horses looked like they were running by themselves. If I can only be just a little bit like that, I'll be happy."

Garrett Gomez is 33. He rides defending champ Skimming in the Classic, but Sunday is a special day for him as well. On Aug. 19, 1988, Gomez rode his first winner at Santa Fe Downs in New Mexico, just a couple hundred miles north of Shoemaker's birthplace of Fabens, Texas.

"I still enjoy watching his rides," Gomez said. "It's so neat, because he doesn't move. His little crosses were like here, down low. And he hardly ever hit a horse.

"The way he was built, so small, I'm not sure he's the kind of guy you really learn from," Gomez added. "I mean, he sat so still all the time, you can't really see what he did. But whatever it was, it worked."