05/26/2004 11:00PM

The race and the cause both fit


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - We will find out on Monday what it's like to run the Shoemaker Mile without Bill Shoemaker.

The race was christened in 1990, shortly after Shoemaker retired from his 42-year career as a rider. Each year, to the delight of the Hollywood Park crowd, the man himself could be found in the winner's circle waiting to greet the champion, although he did miss the 1991 running when he was otherwise occupied in rehabilitation and recovery from the car wreck that left him a quadriplegic.

At first glance, a one-mile race on the grass would seem an odd way to honor the memory of the greatest stakes-winning jockey of 20th century. Among his 1,009 stakes wins, the Shoemaker record included 11 Santa Anita Handicaps, eight Hollywood Gold Cups, and 11 Triple Crown victories in four different decades, commencing with Swaps in the 1955 Kentucky Derby and ending with Ferdinand's Derby win in 1986.

Make no mistake, though, Shoemaker rode some miracle miles. That was him, steering Swaps to a two-turn world record of 1:33.20 in the 1956 Argonaut Handicap at Hollywood Park, then again with Swaps later that year for a track record 1:33.40 in the Washington Park Handicap in Chicago. Shoe also won the Metropolitan Mile with Hall of Famers Gallant Man, Sword Dancer, and Forego.

Shoemaker's last stakes win at Hollywood Park came 15 years ago, in the 1989 Premiere Handicap aboard Peace for Charlie Whittingham and Tom Gentry, at a mile on the grass. One year later, the Premiere was renamed the Shoemaker Handicap. Sometimes, it's just that simple.

These days, the Shoemaker Mile has been positioned as an early-season precursor of form for the Breeders' Cup Mile. Whether there is another Silic, Hawksley Hill, or Fastness in Monday's version of the Shoemaker remains to be seen. It is virtually assured, however, that the name "Shoemaker" will appear somewhere in the lines of at least a couple of Mile contenders on Breeders' Cup day.

Shoemaker's name lives on in other ways, primarily through the work of the Shoemaker Foundation, which was established in the wake of Shoemaker's crippling accident. The foundation, operating out of its Hollywood Park headquarters, helps a wide variety of racetrackers with financial aid, primarily for health care expenses.

"The needs seem to be greater all the time, because people just don't have very good insurance coverage," said Rod Pitts, the foundation's executive director. "So far this year we've helped about 25 people and disbursed approximately $125,000.

"Just today I got a call from the MacBeth Memorial Fund regarding a jockey who can come back to ride, but he needs a knee brace," Pitts went on. "The insurance turned it down, which is pretty typical. But here's a guy who can make money to help his family, so we're going in partnership with the MacBeth Fund and the Jockey Club Foundation to help purchase that brace."

The Shoemaker Foundation secures the bulk of its money from fund-raisers, including the Evening of the Stars in Lexington each September and the Sunset Ball in Los Angeles, this year scheduled for July 1 at the old MGM Studios. Last week, the foundation co-sponsored a charity golf tournament with the Winners Foundation.

"I think people need to understand that we all do work together," Pitts noted. "It's not this foundation against that foundation, all soliciting contributions.

"The goal of the Winners Foundation is counseling people who have drug and alcohol problems," Pitts said. "Many times they go on into rehab, but the Winners Foundation doesn't have the funds to help. So they call upon us, working in partnership."

Shoemaker, who died last Oct. 12 at the age of 72, would have been front and center at the foundation golf tournament, acting as official starter and giving the players no end of grief on the first tee. To say that he was missed is beyond understatement.

Shoemaker's legacy is also being nurtured by his daughter, Amanda, and former wife, Cindy. Last fall, not long after Shoemaker's death, they took it upon themselves to inventory and ship the vast Shoemaker trophy collection to Arlington Park, where is was placed under the safekeeping of the track's chairman, Richard Duchossois. The plan is to create an extensive Shoemaker tribute at Arlington, as well as providing parts of the collection on loan to tracks where Shoemaker made a mark. That's a pretty long list.

"It was very emotional, going through Bill's stuff," Cindy Shoemaker recalled. "And I had forgotten how many places and how many organizations honored Bill. That was five boxes in itself."

Cindy ticked off a partial list that included the Cancer Society, the Paralysis Project, March of Dimes, Easter Seals, Ahead With Horses and any number of local Los Angeles-area charities, with special emphasis on groups that aided children.

"Then there were the races," Cindy added. "I always get emotional over the Exceller races, because of what he and Bill did together, and what eventually happened to him." Exceller was slaughtered in Sweden.

"I get goose bumps just thinking about the Jockey Club Gold Cup," Cindy added, "when Bill and Exceller just beat Seattle Slew in the rain. We had one of Exceller's shoes framed, along with a picture of that race and two winning tickets. That's part of the collection, too. I hope Bill's fans get to see it someday."