April 29, 1991 12:00 PM

NOBODY EVER RODE A THOROUGHBRED with more finesse than Willie Shoemaker. And during a career that spanned four decades—and included a record-setting 40,350 races, 8,833 wins and $123 million in purses—the Shoe seemed indestructible. But on April 8, barely a year after his last mount, a short drive down a California highway nearly killed him.

That afternoon, Shoemaker, 59, had played a round of golf at his country club in La Verne, Calif., followed by beers and clubhouse poker. At about 8 P.M., he was driving alone to meet a friend at a restaurant in nearby Arcadia, home of Santa Anita racetrack, when his 1990 Ford Bronco II veered sharply off California Highway 30, rolled down a 50-foot embankment and landed right side up on an adjacent highway. “There was a big cloud of dust,” says Terry Fisher, 43, an electronics executive who was driving on the lower highway with his 14-year-old daughter, April. Fisher braked sharply and ran over to the Bronco.

He reached through the broken window, found the driver’s head “slumped in a very unnatural position” and pulled it upright. “There was no response,” says Fisher. “I kept talking to him, pumping his chest cavity. I said to myself. “I think this guy is dead.’ ” Then Fisher heard “a little gasp of air.” Paramedics arrived within 10 minutes. It wasn’t until several hours later that Fisher, seeking news about the accident victim, learned the identity of the man he helped save.

Last week Shoemaker remained in critical condition at Centinela Hospital with a broken neck and paralysis in all four limbs. Tests revealed a blood-alcohol content of 0.13 percent, nearly twice the legal limit. In a brief statement, Shoemaker’s third wife, Cindy Barnes, 40, and their daughter, Amanda, 10, announced, “Bill is alert and responsive, but still has a mountain to climb.”

Following his retirement, Shoemaker launched a second career as a trainer. On April 11, Slinkee, one of 30 Thoroughbreds in Shoe’s stable, charged past two horses in the stretch to win the seventh race at Santa Anita. It was a vintage Shoemaker victory, made all the more poignant by his absence from the winner’s circle.

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