In the Lead

Bill Shoemaker, though small, stood as tall as any athlete.

In a moment of candor, the hard-knocking jockey Sonny Werkman once said of his trade: "Two things there ain't in this world: lady hookers and gentleman jockeys."

Old racetrackers claim that Sonny was pretty good at getting a balky filly to go seven furlongs against her will, even a mile, but when it came to characterizing his fellow riders, he couldn't have been thinking about Bill Shoemaker. "The Shoe," who died October 12 at the age of 72, was, at 4' 11" and 95 pounds, one of the greatest athletes of the twentieth century -- every bit the equal of Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali or Babe Ruth. In his 41-year career, he won an astounding 8,833 races (second only to Lafitt Pincay Jr.), including four Kentucky Derbies, a pair of Preaknesses and five Belmont Stakes. And in defiance of Werkman's dictum, Shoemaker was also a gentleman, first, last and always. That doesn't mean he wouldn't lull other riders to sleep by slowing the front-end pace. Or pump his hands in the turn for home to falsely signal a weary mount. Or slip through on the rail when you weren't looking. "He was the absolute master of deception," the late Colorado jockey Jack Keene once said, his craggy, dirt-beaten face full of admiration.

But Shoemaker never boasted, and he never swaggered. His presentation of self was as quiet as his riding style, a high art that transformed the sport and influenced every jockey who followed. From the beginning, in 1949, Shoe sat almost motionless on his horses, urging them on with his famous soft hands and light touch instead of using the whipping, slashing, kicking tactics then in vogue. The eminent Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray once wrote: "Shoemaker rode a horse as if he owed him money."

Bill Shoemaker in the saddle in 1984, ready to win.
Getty Images
Bill Shoemaker in the saddle in 1984, ready to win.

Apparently grateful, the horses responded. While stacking up more than $123 million in winnings, Shoemaker won every major stakes race in America, most of them three or four times, but it didn't matter to him if he was riding Ferdinand in the 1986 Derby (they won it) or a $12,000 claimer on a drowsy Thursday afternoon at Hollywood Park. He treated every mount with respect, and fellow riders marveled at how, through his innate calm, he got the best out of difficult or untalented horses. Johnny Longden -- whose record for career wins Shoemaker broke in 1970, and who died earlier this year, at 96 -- once said of him: "I always envied Shoe for his great disposition. He had judge of pace, perfect hands and a good seat, but I honestly believe that his even disposition was his greatest asset. You never saw him blow a race because he lost his temper."

From the beginning, Shoemaker kept his own counsel and left the loud talk to others. Upon surpassing Longden's 6,032 wins, he modestly observed that Longden didn't get as many mounts in the first ten years of his career. "When I came along," Shoe said, "there were more racetracks and more racing." Maybe so. But it took Longden forty years and 32,000 races to set the record; Shoemaker broke it in 25,000 mounts and 22 seasons. The year he turned 21, he rode 485 winners -- a mark no one has touched.

This past Tuesday at Santa Anita, a public memorial service was held for Shoemaker in -- where else? -- the winner's circle, and the memories were tinged with regret, not just for the finest athlete the sport has produced, but for the sport itself. Thoroughbred racing's most important day is the Breeders' Cup, (scheduled for this Saturday at Santa Anita), a seven-race extravaganza with $15 million in purses, but in its twentieth year, it generates less buzz than the average college football game. Shoemaker's day has passed, and with it the glory days of the Sport of Kings.

His ghost will grace the irons of every horse that runs on Saturday.

William Lee Shoemaker was born August 19, 1931, in an adobe house in Fabens, Texas. At birth he weighed less than two pounds, and the doctor who delivered him said he was a long shot to survive. But his grandmother, they say, put him in a shoebox next to the stove, and there his fighting spirit was heated. Shoemaker's paternal grandfather, family legend holds, looked at little six-year-old Willie and declared: "That boy ain't never gonna play football. Better get him on a horse."

After his parents divorced and his father remarried, the family moved to Southern California when Shoemaker was nine, and he boxed and wrestled in high school. At fourteen, he went to work at the Suzy Q Ranch in El Puente, and a love of horseflesh soon got inside him. He rode his first winner at Golden Gate at age seventeen and never looked back. Not long into his 40,350-race career, no less a figure than Eddie Arcaro, the winningest jockey of his time, spotted Shoemaker's talent and predicted great things for him. Sports columnist Red Smith remembered the moment, in 1952, when he bumped into Arcaro in the Santa Anita walking ring, "accompanied by a bat-eared wisp of a kid in silks." Said Arcaro: "Meet the new champ," and Shoemaker, Smith remembered, "acknowledged the introduction with a tiny, twisted grin."

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