Shoemaker made racing history
By Ron Flatter
Special to

Without getting on a horse, probably the best way to understand the work of a jockey is to shake his hand. At 100 pounds, he doesn't look like he could carry a load of groceries, let alone control a beast 15 times his weight. But all jockeys seem to have powerful handshakes.

 Willie Shoemaker
Bill Shoemaker's victory in the 1986 Kentucky Derby aboard Ferdinand was one of the more memorable in a distinguished career.

Then there's Bill Shoemaker.

His right hand was powerful all right. But there was also something rather gentle about that grip. Sort of horse racing's answer to the rifle-armed quarterback who could throw the touch pass. Or the pool player who could deliver the finesse shot after an explosive break.

Racing people frequently refer to Shoemaker's "soft hands," hands that took the reins of a horse and made "Shoe" the boss.

Those hands guided 8,833 winners, a world record that would stand until broken by Laffit Pincay, Jr. in 1999. In 42 years, Shoemaker won 11 Triple Crown races, 1,009 stakes races and 10 national money titles. He earned more than $123 million in purses, about $10 million of which went into his pocket.

"It's a puzzlement to me how the guy got runs out of horse after horse after horse after horse," jockey Chris McCarron said. "His smooth, calm style was deceiving."

Shoemaker's two most famous races came at the Kentucky Derby. One was in 1957, when he misjudged the finish line with Gallant Man and blew a sure win. The other was aboard Ferdinand in 1986, at age 54, when he became the oldest to win the Run for the Roses.

Billie Lee Shoemaker was born Aug. 19, 1931, in the west Texas town of Fabens. He weighed between 29-40 ounces and was 10 1/2 inches long. One apocryphal story has it that Shoemaker's grandmother put him in a shoebox she placed next to an oven to keep him alive that first night.

After his parents divorced, Shoemaker and his father moved to Southern California, where he cleaned stables on a thoroughbred ranch. Only months after going to work as an exercise boy in Northern California, the 4-foot-11, 96-pound "Willie" Shoemaker had his first professional ride, on March 19, 1949.

A month later the 17-year-old Shoemaker registered his first win, aboard Shafter V in a six-furlong, $3,000 claiming race at Golden Gate Fields in Albany, Calif. "I almost went into shock," he said years later. "She was a chestnut filly, and you bet I remember her. I think I got about $10."

"Shoe" rode 218 more winners before the year was out.

In 1953, Shoemaker set the record for most winners (485) in a year -- a mark that held up for 20 years.

Shoemaker's first Kentucky Derby victory came aboard Swaps in 1955. Two years later, he should have won his second Derby. Instead, he wound up with the embarrassment of standing up too soon before the wire, mistaking a furlong post for the finish line. Iron Liege charged past Gallant Man for the win.

Although Churchill Downs historians will argue the point, jockey Eddie Arcaro said, "They changed the finish line that year. They lengthened the stretch by a sixteenth (of a mile). After the race they did what they should have done 50 years before. They put lines on the fence to show the finish."

From 1958-64, Shoemaker was racing's biggest money-winner among jockeys. Six times, he had six winners in a day.

He won the Kentucky Derby with Tomy Lee in 1959 and Lucky Debonair in 1965. He rode Candy Spots (1963) and Damascus (1967) to victory in the Preakness. He won four Belmont Stakes in an 11-year period aboard Gallant Man (1957), Sword Dancer (1959), Jaipur (1962) and Damascus and tacked on a fifth in 1975 with Avatar.

In 1968, Shoemaker suffered his first serious injury, a broken leg after being thrown from a mount. Shortly after returning in 1969, he was injured again in a paddock accident that broke his pelvis, ruptured his bladder and caused nerve damage in a leg.

Shoemaker bounced back later that year, resuming his quest to become the career leader in riding victories. On Sept. 7, 1970, he won with Dares J. at Del Mar, Cal., for his 6,033rd victory, breaking the record held by Johnny Longden.

The wins became fewer over the years. Two especially noteworthy ones came in the 1980s. In 1981, he became the first jockey to win a $1-million race when he guided John Henry to a nose victory over The Bart in the inaugural Arlington Million.

Even more significant was the 1986 Kentucky Derby. Shoemaker worked 18-1 shot Ferdinand through the pack deliberately. At the top of the stretch, "Shoe" found enough of a hole to get to the front. That's where he and Ferdinand stayed, winning by 2 1/2 lengths.

"What a feeling," he said. "I was half in shock."

But by 1988, that feeling was gone. Shoemaker would hang out in jockeys rooms around Southern California, playing solitaire and waiting for increasingly rare rides. Late that year, he announced he would retire.

He decided to exit in a flourish of promotion. New Zealand media entrepreneur Michael Watt organized a nine-month, international farewell tour that took Shoemaker from fabled tracks to the middle of nowhere and back again. Whether it was just a chance to say goodbye or modern sport's version of a traveling medicine show, "Shoe" packed grandstands from Royal Ascot to Mountaineer Park. He reportedly made $1 million in appearance fees -- more than he did with any one season's worth of purses.

His last win, aboard Beau Genius, came Jan. 20, 1990, in the Hallandale Handicap at Gulfstream Park in Florida.

"The Legend's Last Ride," as it was billed, came Feb. 3, 1990, at Santa Anita. His 40,352nd mount was 7-year-old Patchy Groundfog. The 64,573 attending made "Shoe" a sentimental 7-10 favorite in the $107,850, one-mile turf race.

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He guided Patchy Groundfog to the lead at the top of the stretch, inspiring track announcer Trevor Denman to break from his neutrality and yell, "Come on, 'Shoe'!" But Shoemaker didn't have enough horse and finished fourth.

"They weren't going to give it to me," Shoemaker said. "I had to earn it."

The next day, Shoemaker began his career as a trainer, working horses at dawn on Southern California tracks. His life took a tragic turn on April 8, 1991 after he played golf and had some drinks. Driving home alone along a deserted highway in San Dimas, Cal., east of Los Angeles, he started to call home on his cellular phone. He lost control of his Ford Bronco, going off the road and rolling down a 50-foot embankment.

Shoemaker was left paralyzed from the neck down, and he was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office decided not to prosecute since no one else was hurt.

In the years since, Shoemaker has filed lawsuits against the State of California -- claiming the highway was unsafe -- and the doctors who treated him -- alleging he was not treated immediately or properly for his neck injuries. Three years after the accident, Cindy, his third wife, divorced him after 16 years of marriage.

Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Shoemaker remained focused on his desire to return to a full life, including training. "I never gave up," he said. "A few times I didn't think I was going to make it. But I never quit."

Shoemaker resumed his training career in a supervisory role, returning to Santa Anita on Sept. 29, 1991. He retired Nov. 3, 1997, his record of 90 wins in 713 starts and $3,699,439 in earnings paling in comparison to his riding accomplishments.

"Being able to win that many races, year after year, that consistently for that long a time," McCarron said. "It's staggering the career he had."