In the Lead

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

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."

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."

Later, he would ride such champions as John Henry, Ack Ack, Forego, Damascus and Sword Dancer. The best of them, he said for years, was his 1955 Derby winner, Swaps. But in 1980 he transferred that crown to Spectacular Bid. Together they won ten straight stakes races. Watching Shoemaker ride any horse, his former wife, Cindy, said last week, was "like listening to a pretty song or reading poetry."

Famous for his bashfulness but blessed with quiet self-confidence, Shoemaker was a practical joker who would sneak up and squirt ketchup into his doctor's jacket pocket. He once ordered a washer-and-dryer set sent to the home of a fellow rider. Having overstayed at a Tuesday-night party in Louisville in 1965, he and a veterinarian friend proceeded straight to Churchill Downs at dawn so Shoemaker could work out his Kentucky Derby mount, Lucky Debonair. Debonair ran those seven furlongs in 1:25 1/5. Little matter that his rider was still wearing his tuxedo, complete with ruffled shirt, suspenders, black trousers and patent-leather shoes. "I did remove my cummerbund and jacket," Shoe later said.

He was also known for dropping lines on fellow jockeys in the midst of races. During the heat of one Preakness Stakes, legend has it, Shoemaker and his mount drew alongside Bill Boland and his colt in the long Pimlico backstretch, where Shoemaker said: "Got an 8:45 tee time in the morning, Billy. Wanna come along?"

For a 95-pounder, Shoemaker could hit a golf ball a long way, and straight -- a fact many a beefy linebacker and cocky horse trainer learned the hard way once the bets were made. "Pound for pound," trainer Charlie Whittingham once said, "he was probably the greatest athlete of them all."

Shoemaker's storied career -- first rider with 8,000 victories, first rider to take in $100 million, a Kentucky Derby win aboard Ferdinand at the age of 54 -- was also darkened by tragedies, large and small. In 1957, he took the sixteenth pole for the finish line at the Kentucky Derby aboard Gallant Man and lost by a nose to Bill Hartack and Iron Liege. Typically, he offered no alibis, and five weeks later he and Gallant Man won the Belmont Stakes. In 1968 a horse fell on Shoemaker at Santa Anita, crushing his thighbone, and thirteen months later he was tossed by a fractious mount at Hollywood, resulting in a broken pelvis, a ruptured bladder and temporary paralysis. The greatest blow came in 1991, a year after his retirement from riding, when a horrific car crash turned the rider with the finest hands and softest touch in history into a quadriplegic. But not even that got Shoemaker down, friends attest. For six more years, he continued to train racehorses -- a Hall of Famer whose racing legacy will always be secure. "He was a great rider and a great man," said Pincay Jr., who broke Shoemaker's career-wins record in 1999. Fittingly, Shoemaker was on hand at Santa Anita the day Pincay did it, smiling. "I couldn't be happier," Shoemaker said then. "The game goes on."

As fellow Hall of Fame rider Eddie Delahoussaye pointed out the other day, Bill Shoemaker, the gentleman jockey who changed an entire sport, wore size 2 1/2 shoes. That may be so. But no one will ever fill them.

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