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Shoemaker, William Lee (“Bill”)

Shoemaker, William Lee (“Bill”)

(b. 19 August 1931 in Fabens, Texas; d. 12 October 2003 in San Marino, California), record-breaking Thoroughbred jockey.

Shoemaker, born prematurely to B. B. Shoemaker, a tenant cotton farmer, and Ruby (Harris) Shoemaker, weighed less than three pounds at birth. Always small, he stood four feet, eleven inches as an adult and weighed around ninety-seven pounds. His mother gave birth to another son before his parents divorced. Shoemaker lived with his maternal grandfather, “Big Ed” Harris, on a ranch at Winters, Texas, where at around age five he began to ride horses. His father moved to El Monte, California, to work in a tire factory and married his second wife, Vivian. Around the age of nine Shoemaker joined this family and attended Baldwin Park Grade School. An athletic boy, he boxed and wrestled at El Monte Union High School and won a Golden Gloves title in Los Angeles.

In 1946 Shoemaker quit school to work at Tom Simmons’s Suzy-Q Ranch in La Puente, California. At the time Simmons was also the president of the Hollywood Park horse-racing track in Inglewood, California. A couple of years later Shoemaker went to work as an exercise rider at Bay Meadows, a mile-long horse-racing track in San Mateo, California. There the jockey John Adams taught Shoemaker about racing. In 1948 Shoemaker obtained his jockey’s license and began working for the trainer George Reeves, who recommended him to the agent Harry Silbert in 1949. Silbert then sent Shoemaker to the Agua Caliente track in Tijuana, Mexico, to gain experience. He returned to lead the jockeys of the Del Mar racetrack in Del Mar, California, with fifty-two victories and was national 1949 champion apprentice jockey with 219 wins.

Shoemaker shared the 1950 national jockey title with 388 victories and won his first $100,000 purse in the 1951 Santa Anita Maturity and, later that year, his first national earnings title. In 1953 he broke the record for most annual wins with 485, a record that stood until 1973.

Shoemaker narrowly lost the 1957 Kentucky Derby aboard Gallant Man when he briefly stood up in the stirrups to celebrate victory but quickly realized that the horse was not at the finish line. The horse’s owner, Ralph Lowe, retained him as Gallant Man’s rider, and the pair made up for the Derby loss by winning the Belmont by eight lengths. Shoemaker later endowed the Ralph Lowe Trophy to be “presented annually to a racing man distinguished for sportsmanship.”

In 1958 Shoemaker became the youngest jockey to win 3,000 races and set a record by winning twelve $100,000 stakes. He won a record ninth earnings title in 1963 and in January 1964 became the all-time earnings leader with $30,039,543.

Shoemaker suffered severe injuries for the first time on 23 January 1968 when he was spilled, sustaining a femoral fracture, at the Santa Anita racetrack in Santa Anita, California. While recovering, he spent September and October touring South Vietnam with his fellow jockey Johnny Longden and the United Service Organizations (USO). He returned to ride on 11 February 1969 and won his three races that day. Scheduled to ride on Arts and Letters in the 1969 Kentucky Derby, he suffered pelvic injuries and temporary paralysis in a paddock accident; Shoemaker subsequently missed four months of racing.

Shoemaker next passed then all-time victory leader Longden with win number 6,033 in 1970. He broke the jockey Bill Hartack’s 1957 record of forty-three stakes wins with his 1971 total of forty-six, twenty-nine of them for the trainer Charlie Whittingham. He also broke the jockey Eddie Arcaro’s record for career stakes wins with 555 in 1972.

In December 1975 Shoemaker’s peers elected him president of the Jockeys’ Guild, a position in which he served until 1990. He worked to enhance health and medical benefits, make jockeys eligible for workman’s compensation, improve track first aid, install safety rails, insure equipment, test track personnel for drugs and alcohol, and increase jockey fees.

Shoemaker won the first million-dollar Thoroughbred purse in the 1981 Arlington Million, and in 1982 he became the first jockey to win career earnings of $90 million. Three years later he became the first to reach career earnings of $100 million. At the age of fifty-six, riding Ferdinand, Shoemaker became the oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. The duo won the 1987 $3-million Breeders’ Cup Classic. This was Shoemaker’s richest purse, and part of his greatest annual earnings of $7,169,434.

After a farewell tour of fourteen racetracks in eight countries, Shoemaker won his last race, making a total of 1,009 stakes, on 20 January 1990. Shoemaker finished fourth in the nationally televised Legend’s Last Ride Handicap, featuring six Hall of Fame jockeys, on 3 February 1990. He retired with 8,833 wins, a record that was ultimately broken by the jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr., on 10 December 1999. Shoemaker won 21.89 percent of his races and placed second in 6,136 and third in 4,987 of 40,352 career races. His mounts earned at least $123,375,524 in North America. He also won races in England, Ireland, South Africa, and Argentina.

Shoemaker led the nation’s jockeys in wins five times: 1950 (co-leader), 1953–1954, and 1958–1959; in earnings ten times: 1951, 1953, 1954, and 1958–1964; and stakes victories fourteen times. He finished first or second in wins for his first fourteen years as a jockey and in annual earnings from 1953 to 1967.

Shoemaker rode in forty-nine Triple Crown races with Kentucky Derby victories on Swaps (1955), Tomy Lee (1959), Lucky Debonair (1965), and Ferdinand (1986), three seconds and four thirds on his record twenty-six mounts; Preakness Stakes wins on Candy Spots (1963) and Damascus (1967), four seconds and one third in twelve starts; and Belmont Stakes wins on Gallant Man (1957), Sword Dancer (1959), Jaipur (1962), Damascus (1967), and Avatar (1975), a second and a third in eleven starts. He also trained Diazo, who ran fifth in the 1993 Kentucky Derby.

Shoemaker also led all riders in wins at Santa Anita Park, for seventeen consecutive seasons; Hollywood Park, eighteen times; and Del Mar, seven times. He also rode to six wins in one day nine times during his career.

Shoemaker’s great mounts included many champions and Hall of Fame horses: Ack Ack, Bowl of Flowers, Cicada, Dahlia, Damascus, Exceller, Forego, Gallant Man, Gun Bow, John Henry, Northern Dancer, Round Table, Spectacular Bid, Swaps, Sword Dancer, and, briefly, Arts and Letters, Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, and Kelso. Shoemaker claimed that Swaps and Spectacular Bid “might finish in a dead heat” as his best mounts and that his ride on Olden Times in the 1962 San Juan Capistrano Handicap was his best.

On 25 April 1990 Shoemaker began training horses with his assistant Patrick Gallagher. Driving home on 8 April 1991, Shoemaker rolled his vehicle and was left a paraplegic. In 1993 the Ford Motor Company paid Shoemaker a settlement of $1 million for the accident. Hollywood Park chairman R. D. Hubbard helped to establish the Shoemaker Foundation, endowed with $2 million, to assist horsemen who had suffered catastrophic injury or accident.

After five months of intensive rehabilitation at Colorado’s Craig Hospital, Shoemaker returned to Santa Anita to train, saying: “I’ve made it back from almost dying and when I pull up to the barn, watch the horses and see the guys, I feel like I’m in heaven.” Shoemaker retired on 2 November 1997. He had trained horses that ran in the United States and abroad and won 157 of 1,241 starts and $7,199,278, with 148 seconds and 152 thirds, and 30 stakes winners. Shoemaker had met the writer Dick Lochte prior to the auto accident and provided him with humor, stories, and racing information, which Lochte used to construct three co-authored mysteries: Stalking Horse (1994), Fire Horse (1995), and Dark Horse (1996).

Shoemaker married Virginia McLaughlin on 26 June 1950. The couple adopted two children before divorcing in 1960. Bessie May “Babs” Masterson and Shoemaker married on 29 November 1961; they adopted a son and divorced in 1978. On 7 March 1978 Shoemaker married Cynthia Elisabeth Barnes, the daughter of General Wallace Hayden Barnes. The couple had one daughter and filed for divorce in 1994.

During his final years Shoemaker appeared at fundraisers for the Shoemaker Foundation and served as honorary chairman of the board of directors of the Paralysis Project. His last public appearance was at Pincay’s retirement ceremony in July 2003. A few months later Shoemaker died at his home in San Marino, California, at the age of seventy-two. He was cremated with no funeral service, as he had requested. Santa Anita Park held memorial services on both 12 and 21 October 2003. In March 2004 U.S. Representative Silvestre Reyes introduced a resolution honoring Shoemaker; the House of Representatives unanimously passed it.

Shoemaker received many awards, including the George Woolf Memorial, induction into the Racing Hall of Fame (1958), a Special Eclipse Award, the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey, the Eclipse Award of Merit, and the Mike Venezia Memorial. Honors and races named for him include the Shoemaker Breeders’ Cup Mile Stakes; the Shoemaker Award, honoring the top jockey at the World Thoroughbred Championships; the $100,000 Shoemaker Handicap; and Hollywood Park’s and Golden Gate Fields’ winner’s circles.

The trainer Bruce Headley said of Shoemaker: “He brought a new style to racing.... He had a light touch. He didn’t pull on a horse’s mouth.... Whether his horses started off first, in the middle, or last, they were very comfortable.” The trainer Charlie Wittingham claimed: Shoemaker “bothered a horse less than any other rider.... Horses just like him. He doesn’t hinder them. He’s not all over them, whipping and flailing.” Longden believed Shoemaker’s “even disposition was his greatest asset.”

Shoemaker and Barney Nagler wrote Shoemaker: The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Jockey (1988), which covers his life through 1987. Steve Schuelein, “Harry & Bill,” Horseman’s Journal (Nov. 1985), describes the friendship between Shoemaker and his agent. Dave Kindred, “A Team for All Seasons,” The Blood-Horse (17 May 1986), tells of Shoemaker’s relationship with the trainer Charlie Wittingham. William Nack, “From Fame to Shame,” Sports Illustrated (19 Apr. 1993), focuses on Shoemaker’s auto accident and its aftermath. Debra Ginsburg, “The Bill Shoemaker Mysteries,” Thoroughbred of California (Jan. 1996), chronicles his meeting with Dick Lochte, their books, and Shoemaker the trainer. Obituaries are in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Racing Post (all 13 Oct. 2003); the Daily Racing Form (15 Oct. 2003); The Blood-Horse (18 Oct. 2003); and the Thoroughbred Times (18 and 25 Oct. 2003).

Steven P. Savage

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