10/12/2003 11:00PM

Remembering laughter amid tears

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Paddy Gallagher leaned on the wood railing at the mouth of his stable shed row and gazed up at a huge pepper tree swaying gently in the soft autumn breeze. In the distance, Trevor Denman's voice could be heard calling a race near the end of the Santa Anita program. It was almost four o'clock. Gallagher's horses were hungry, and they were letting him know.

"I remember the day I showed up to go to work for Bill at Hollywood Park," Gallagher said. "There was him and me, and just two horses. And a groom if I remember. I'm not sure what we were thinking, but before too long there were 35 horses in the barn. That was March of 1990."

It had been nine hours since Gallagher had learned that his best friend had died. Nine melancholy hours to deal with the fact that Bill Shoemaker would no longer be on the other end of the telephone for their daily calls, that Shoe would never again summon a tale from the good old days, nor laugh at one of Gallagher's famously off-color jokes.

"It was just like him, wasn't it?" Gallagher said. "Going quietly in his sleep. Never making a fuss."

When Bill Shoemaker closed his eyes and took his last, labored breath, some time between 4:30 and 6 a.m. Sunday in his San Marino home, a curtain softly descended upon the life of a man whose signature grace was the untroubled defiance of insurmountable odds.

He survived a premature birth weight of about two pounds. He defied the conventional prejudice against small jockeys. He survived the public pounding of a misjudged Kentucky Derby finish that dogged him for years. His answer, in the end, was 8,833 victories, four of them in the Derby, including his last at age 54.

In recent years, Shoemaker had all but disappeared from public view. The lonely freeway accident that left him a quadriplegic occurred in April 1991, cutting short what was destined to be a successful second career as a Thoroughbred trainer.

Shoemaker continued to work alongside Gallagher, lending his name and considerable insight to the operation. But in the end, the hard work of mere survival became too great. Shoemaker officially retired in 1997.

"Here's the kind of horseman he was, the kind of trainer he would have been," Gallagher began.

"One morning that first season he went by the barn at Hollywood to get on a couple young fillies. On the way back to Santa Anita he calls me and says, 'You're gonna get mad at me when you see the work tab. They went kind of fast. But the one filly has more natural speed than maybe anything I've ever been on. And the other one is all class. She could be very special.'

"The one was Glen Kate," Gallagher said. "The other was Fire the Groom, and neither one had started."

Let the record show that Glen Kate went on to win the Laurel Dash and the Hong Kong International Bowl, and that Fire the Groom won the Beverly D.

Shoemaker, by then confined to a wheelchair, had to miss those races. He was busy learning how to deal with life without the ability to move his hands, arms, or legs.

"I could never imagine what he went through, just to get from one day to the next," Gallagher said. "He had to be handled for everything. Picked up to be showered, put in his chair, put in bed. They had to move his arms and legs to keep the circulation going, and breathing exercises to help him cough, to keep his lungs clear.

"But I never heard him complain," Gallagher said. "And he could still laugh. Laughed so hard sometimes that tears would come to his eyes. Only thing was, someone would have to reach over and wipe those tears away for him."

In what turned out to be his final visit, Shoemaker dropped by Santa Anita earlier this month and spent the afternoon in the jockeys' room. That evening, he joined Gallagher for dinner in nearby Sierra Madre.

"He was talking about the new rider, Ryan Fogelsonger," Gallagher recalled. "Bill thought the kid looked pretty good on a horse. Thought he might make it out here. Then he said he was kind of mad at himself for not going over and introducing himself to the kid. Imagine that. Imagine being Bill Shoemaker, and being so humble."

In the coming days, Shoemaker tributes will pour forth. A memorial service is planned. Bill would be a little miffed at all the bother, but it's not for him - it is for his friends, his fans, his family, and especially for his daughter, Amanda. Not surprisingly, Shoemaker's preference was to keep things low key.

"We were talking about it one day," Gallagher said. "I don't remember what brought it up, but Bill said that for sure he wanted to be cremated. I told him not to worry, and for no extra charge I'd scatter his ashes on the finish line at Churchill Downs so he'd never forget where it was. That made him laugh."

He laughed so hard he cried.