Harness racing lost one of its superstars on the night of August 27, 1982 when Shelly Goudreau died of traumatic head injuries suffered in a spill at Hollywood Park. He was just 34. Anyone who saw Goudreau in action realized the 34-year-old had abilities above and beyond in the sulky and was on his way to securing himself as one of the best ever in the sport when the fates conspired to take his life that summer evening.
The loss was particularly hard for fellow horseman Frank Sherren.
"My wife Linda and I were very good friends with Shelly and his fiancé, Poppi," Sherren related. "In fact, we were the first ones he told after he had proposed."
In a strange co-incidence, it was only a short time earlier that Frank had been talking to Shelly about accidents and the options that a driver has when he loses control in the bike for one reason or another.
"I'd driven in a race at Los Alamitos that spring and had the lines break," Sherren explained. "We were on the far turn and I ended up bailing out because there was a very good chance my horse was going to run right off the course and head back to the barn area.
"Some other drivers around that time also found themselves in similar situations and they had climbed up on the horse's back. I decided the smart thing to do was to bail out and take my chances."
A few days later Sherren found himself in a conversation with Goudreau about that race. "He told me I had definitely done the right thing, instead of trying to do what he described as ‘that crazy shit-climbing up on the horse.'"
Frank was not driving in the race that ultimately claimed his friend's life later that year in Inglewood, but he saw what happened. "I had driven that horse, and he was very big and was racing with a very unique bit. Shelly lost control when the bit broke, and because the horse was racing with a tail tie, he had to lift his leg up over it before he could jump off.
"It turned out he flipped over backwards and ended up hitting his head very hard on the track. You have to understand that up to that time, the helmets we were wearing really didn't offer a lot of protection and his was split right in half. The helmet he was wearing was an old Caliente and believe me, you could crush it just by sitting on it."
As a result of this tragedy, the rules were changed in California and safer head gear was required. "After that and some other incidents, we were finally racing with much safer helmets. There's no question if Shelly had been wearing one of the safer ones, it could have very well made the difference between life and death."
Some 30 years later, you can still hear the pain in Frank Sherren's voice when he talks about Goudreau's accident. "It was a terrible loss because he was a good friend and such an all-around great guy. I have a set of his silks displayed in my home ‘in memoriam.'"
Rick Kuebler actually won that ill-fated Hollywood Park race for Roger Stein with a pacer named Marquis. "Because of Shelly Goudreau's death and Jack Parker having a near fatal head injury in a spill, much more research was put into the safety helmet," Kuebler pointed out.
"This resulted in the Snell approved helmets put out by Bell, and I was the first person to race with one of them. I wish I'd had one when I went down with The Thilly Brudder the previous year, because I received a fractured skull from that accident."
Trainer Bob Johnson became close to Goudreau, with the pilot guiding many of his trainees to victory. "The one I'll always remember is a horse named Thenatcho Tarr," Johnson related.
"He was in the tough, outside number 9 post position at Hollywood Park and when Shelly came to the paddock I told him he better duck the horse and try to work out a trip. He gave me that mischievous grin of his and went out to the track with the horse. The gate rolled, he went right down the road and took the field wire-to-wire.
"Shelly Goudreau had a great attitude and was destined to be one of the greatest drivers in the sport. It was a terrible loss personally and for racing as well."
Roger Stein was witness to many of Goudreau's finest moments behind the trotters and pacers and had also become quite close with the Canadian native. "He was the greatest driver I've ever seen and you'll find a lot of people who were around then who will tell you the same thing," Stein related.
"You would see him do amazing things night in and night out. He could sit parked with a horse and not panic at all, with the driver to his inside sitting in the pocket and loving every minute of it.
"They would straighten for home, the driver in the two hole would come out to take his shot, and Shelly would just take off in the stretch. He was doing things with these horses that were just unbelievable and they were regularly overachieving when he was driving.
"I'm not the type of person who watches a race and then says ‘Wow!' but it happened quite a bit when Shelly was driving and I would tell him so."
Because of his amazing results, Goudreau was often the target of the powers-that-be following his wins.
"He was shaken down quite a few times for electrical devices in the winner's circle because they couldn't believe what these horses were doing," Roger recalled. "Some of the other drivers were very jealous and were sure that he was using something." Professional jealousy and the undirected rage of those whose envy cannot be contained are recurring themes in the racing business. Roger's experience with the cocaine scandal would the old story even more tediously painful.
There was a period where Stein found himself as something of a spiritual advisor for Goudreau, who confided in him that he had a drinking problem. "He said that he would go right from the breathalyzer to his locker where he kept alcohol.
"He also told me that he would wake up in the morning with an awful headache and would end up running on the beach until he could vomit. At that point, he would promise himself that the next day would be different. But in reality, it would all just start over again."
Roger also remembers something Shelly said to him that really drove the point home about his drinking. "He said that he'd rather have to battle a weight problem like me because eating was something he thought he could get under control."
Whatever his demons, Goudreau was a pleasure to watch night in and night out on the Southern California harness scene. In the end, he gave his life for the sport he loved, leaving many friends and admirers and some amazing racing memories.
Courtesy of Mark RATZKY