Shoemaker, William Lee ("Bill")

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SHOEMAKER, William Lee ("Bill")

(b. 19 August 1931 in Fabens, Texas), revered jockey who ranked as one of the all-time leaders in career victories, stakes victories, and purse earnings and who later became a trainer and novelist.

Shoemaker was one of two sons born to Bebe Shoemaker, a cotton mill worker, and Ruby Harris, a homemaker. He weighed only two and one-half pounds at birth and would not have survived without his grandmother's assistance. "She picked me off the bed, wrapped me up warm, turned the oven on low and put me on the stove door to keep me warm."

At age seven, following his parents' divorce, Shoemaker began living with his grandparents on a cattle and sheep ranch near Abilene, Texas. There he rode his grandfather's horse to get the daily mail. At age ten he moved to the San Gabriel Valley in California to live with his father and stepmother. Weighing only eighty pounds, he failed to make the football and basketball teams at El Monte Union High School. However, he made the wrestling team, competing in the 95-to 105-pound division and finishing undefeated. He also won a Golden Gloves boxing championship.

Shoemaker left school at age sixteen without his father's knowledge. Instead of studying, he began his first regular job with horses, cleaning out stalls at the Suzy Q Ranch in Puente, California. After a short time he advanced to breaking yearlings and exercising horses. Later, Shoemaker said of this time, "I knew I had found my niche in life." He earned $75 per month plus room and board.

The trainer George Reeves saw potential in the seventeen-year-old Shoemaker and signed him to an apprentice contract. Shoemaker rode his first race, finishing fifth, on 19 March 1949 at Golden Gate Fields in Albany, California, aboard the filly Waxahachie. On 20 April 1949 in only his third race, the four-foot, eleven-inch, 100-pound Shoemaker captured his first triumph aboard Shafter V. He won 219 races that year and finished second to Gordon Glison in the jockey standings nationally. In 1950 Shoemaker battled the eastern rider Joe Culmone throughout the year for leading jockey honors. As the year came to a close, the two jockeys were tied. Shoemaker traveled to Caliente, Mexico, while Culmone rode in Cuba. Each won three races to tie with 388 wins, equaling a record set by Walter Miller in 1906. Shoemaker's mounts earned him $844,040 in 1950, making him second in the monies-won category, trailing Eddie Arcaro. During this year (1950) he married Ginny. They adopted two children and divorced in 1960.

The next year Shoemaker topped the nation's other jockeys in purse money with $1,329,890. He did not win that title in 1952 but regained it in 1953 and 1954, during which time Shoemaker was the best in total wins and winning percentage. In 1953 he rode a 29 percent winning mark. In 1954 he had a 30 percent victory record. In 1955 Shoemaker won his first Kentucky Derby by piloting Swaps to a one-and-a-half-length victory over the favored Nashua. In 1956 Shoemaker became the first jockey to exceed the $2 million mark in purse money, but still was beaten that year by Bill Hartack for monies-won honors.

Shoemaker suffered his most humiliating defeat in the 1957 Kentucky Derby. As an apparent sure winner with Gallant Man, he mistook the sixteenth pole for the finish, stood up in the saddle, and allowed Iron Liege to win. The following month Shoemaker captured his first Belmont Stakes with Gallant Man. Shoemaker outpaced all other jockeys in monies won from 1958 through 1964 and led the nation's riders in victories in 1958 and 1959. In 1959 he won his second Kentucky Derby with Tomy Lee and the Belmont on Sword Dancer. Although his career was not yet half over, he was inducted into the National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in 1958 and the Jockey's Hall of Fame at Pimlico, near Baltimore, in 1959. In 1961 Shoemaker married his second wife, Babbs. He adopted her young son. The couple divorced in 1978, and Shoemaker later married Cindy Barnes, with whom he had a daughter. Shoemaker and Barnes divorced in 1994.

After winning the Belmont Stakes in 1962 aboard Jaipur, Shoemaker took the Preakness in 1963 on Candy Spots. In 1965 he piloted Lucky Debonair to victory in the Kentucky Derby. Two years later he took both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes aboard Damascus. Although sidelined for short periods several times, Shoemaker did not suffer serious injury until he broke a leg in a fall in January 1968 at Santa Anita in California and was sidelined for thirteen months. Only three months after returning to racing, he sustained a fractured pelvis and ruptured bladder in a paddock accident. On 5 September 1970, at age thirty-nine, Shoemaker equaled Johnny Longden's all-time winning record with 6,032 victories. Two days later aboard the filly Dares J. he broke the record. Longden took nearly forty years to set the record; Shoemaker broke it in his twenty-second season with 7,000 fewer mounts. In 1972 Shoemaker overtook the racing legend Arcaro's record of 554 stakes victories. In 1975 he won the Belmont Stakes riding Avatar.

On 3 March 1985 Shoemaker became the first jockey in history to earn more than $100 million in purses when he rode Lord at War to victory in the $500,000 Santa Anita Handicap. It was his 8,446th career victory and his 917th stakes triumph. In 1986 the fifty-four-year-old Shoemaker became the oldest jockey to ride a Kentucky Derby winner when he guided Ferdinand to victory in a 2:02.4 clocking. On 3 February 1990 Shoemaker rode Patchy Groundfog at Santa Anita in a $100,000 stakes that was run only once. Billed as the "Legend's Last Ride," the race marked Shoemaker's official retirement; the oldest rider and the oldest horse in the race lost by slightly more than a length and came in fourth. Shoemaker retired with a record 8,833 wins, a winning record of 22 percent, and $123 million in purses. His wins included ten Santa Anita Handicaps, eight Hollywood Gold Cups, five Belmonts and Woodwards, and four Kentucky Derbys.

Upon his retirement from riding, Shoemaker said he would work some of the horses he trained, but that he definitely had scaled a horse in the afternoon for the last time. He compared training to riding by saying, "When you're a trainer, you're stuck with a horse. When you're riding, you get off a bad horse." Shoemaker saddled his first winner as a trainer on 8 April 1990. Just over one year later Shoemaker's Ford Bronco tumbled down a steep embankment in San Dimas, California, leaving him a quadriplegic. After extensive physical therapy, he returned to training for several years before retiring in 1997 to his long-time home in San Marino, California. In 1990 and 1991 Shoemaker's horses won forty-six races and earned $2.4 million. His purse totals dropped after that, but his career total is 158 wins with purses of more than $7 million. In the mid-1990s he began appearing at fund-raisers for spinal cord research and launched a writing career. He published three mystery novels, Stalking Horse (1994), Fire Horse (1995), and Dark Horse: A Coley Killebrew Novel (1996).

Shoemaker's brilliant run as a jockey spanned more than four decades, beginning with his first win at Golden Gate in 1949 to his Kentucky Derby victory in 1986 through to his retirement in 1990. He personified grace under pressure, with the uncanny ability to extract every ounce of talent from his mounts. Even Shoemaker's rivals acknowledged his skills. Arcaro said, "Regardless of the particular sport, Bill Shoemaker by his accomplishments must be considered one of the outstanding athletes in the history of sports. I doubt we'll ever see another race rider having his special combination of talent. He has it all and has done it all." Longden said, "Both on and off the race track he's the greatest … a great rider and a great gentleman."

The best sources on Shoemaker's life and career are his autobiography, written with Barney Nagler , Shoemaker (1988), and the biography by Louis Phillips, Willie Shoemaker, ed. by Michael E. Goodman (1988). Additional information is available in "How Can Anybody Win 7,000 races?" Blood Horse (8 Mar. 1976); "Stepping Out," Blood Horse (14 July 1990); "Changing Shoes," The Backstretch (Apr. 1991), and "Shoemaker Retires as a Trainer," Los Angeles Times (1 Nov. 1997).

Joan Goodbody