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Excerpt: Red Smith on Willie Shoemaker

The following is from a new book published by Daily Racing Form's DRF Press entitled "Finished Lines: A Collection of Memorable Writings on Throughbred Racing." In the book, Frank R. Scatoni has compiled 38 outstanding pieces on Thoroughbred racing, penned by some of the greatest writers of the past century, including William Faulkner, Damon Runyon, Jimmy Breslin and Red Smith.

Below is a 1970 piece written by famed racing writer Red Smith about all-time great Bill Shoemaker.

It was March of 1952 and a couple of guys in the walking ring at Santa Anita bumped into their equestrian friend, Eddie Arcaro, accompanied by a bat-eared wisp of a kid in silks.

"Meet the new champ," Eddie said, and William Lee Shoemaker acknowledged the introduction with a tiny, twisted grin.

In 1952 Arcaro had been riding races for more than twenty years. Only two men in the world-Sir Gordon Richards and Johnny Longden-had brought home more winners. In about six weeks he would ride his fifth Kentucky Derby winner. He was rich and famous and destined to go on as top man in his field for another decade, yet he was cheerfully abdicating his title to a twenty-year-old only recently sprung from apprentice ranks.

Gifted with the class of the true champion himself, Arcaro could recognize class in another. Before he was through, Eddie would ride winners of $30 million, but if somebody had asked him to name the jockey likeliest to break that and all other records for success on horseback, he would without hesitation have named the painfully bashful, almost wordless Shoe.

Last Monday Bill Shoemaker won the fourth race at Del Mar aboard a horse named Dares J. It was Shoe's 6,033rd visit to the winner's circle, an all-time record. Characteristically, he explained that he had profited from opportunities that weren't enjoyed by Johnny Longden, whose record he had broken.

"I had a lot more mounts early in my career than Longden did," he said. "He didn't ride many horses in his first ten years. When I came along there were more racetracks and more racing."

That is true, but it took Longden forty years and more than 32,000 races to get 6,032 winners. Shoe did it with 25,000 in twenty-two seasons.

Opportunity has no great value without the talent to capitalize on it. When Shoe was a sixteen-year-old working horses for a man in California, his boss told him he'd never make a race rider and turned him loose, keeping another exercise boy whom he deemed more promising. The other boy hasn't won a race yet, though once he came close. Put up on a horse that was pounds the best, he came into the homestretch leading by six lengths, turned to look back, and fell off.

At seventeen Shoe was a winner. At eighteen he tied Joe Culmone for the national championship with 388 winning rides. At nineteen he led the country with purses of $1,329,890. At twenty-one he rode 485 winners for a world record.

His mounts have brought back $41 million. If he receives only the standard fee of 10 percent, he has earned more than $4 million in the saddle. No other performer in any sport ever collected that much directly out of competition.

And that isn't counting what the little bandit takes from large, muscular golfers who simply will not believe that this imperturbable scamp can go on scoring in the early 70's round after round and even outhit them from the tee when he's in the mood.

If Bill Shoemaker were six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds he could beat anybody in any sport. Standing less than five feet and weighing around 100, he beats everybody at what he does. Pound for pound, he's got to be the greatest living athlete.

He hadn't been around long before horsemen had to discard a belief that had been handed down for generations. It was an article of faith that "live" weight was easier on a horse than "dead" weight; a man whose horse had drawn a heavy load from the handicappers shopped around for a big jockey who needed no ballast.

Then along came Shoe weighing well under 100 pounds with all his tack. With enough lead in the saddle pockets to sink a battleship, he won every stake in sight, and that took care of that old husband's tale.

Not that Shoe was out to prove anything. That isn't his style. He goes along quietly doing his thing and if he kicks one for an error, as we all do, he cops no plea. It can't give him any pleasure to remember the 1957 Kentucky Derby that he lost with Gallant Man because he misjudged the finish line and eased his horse too soon. Yet because Ralph Lowe, who owned Gallant Man, took defeat like a gentleman, Shoe endowed a Ralph Lowe Trophy to be presented annually to a racing man distinguished for sportsmanship.

Instead of hiding out and hoping people would forget his mistake, Shoe puts up his own money to remind people of it every year. The word for that is class.

"Willie Shoemaker" originally from "The Red Smith Reader" by Red Smith, edited by Dave Anderson, copyright 1982 by Random House, Inc. Used by permission of Random House, Inc.