Shoemaker, Willie

views updated May 29 2018

Willie Shoemaker


American jockey

In the unlikely role of jockey, Willie Shoemaker became known throughout the world during the course of a phenomenal career. After first entering the winner's circle in 1949, he went on to set record after record.

Among these, Shoemaker claimed the highest total purse money among riders ten times and for twenty-nine years had the most wins ever accumulated by a jockey. Known as "Shoe" and several other nicknames, he earned his fame on the racetrack and rarely drew attention to his life outside of racing. A quiet man with the reputation of outsmarting other riders and knowing how not to get in his horse's way during a race, he has been quick to draw attention to worthy rivals. During the 1970s, fame and personal problems reduced the jockey's appearances on the track and winning percentage, but he regained his old form as was evidenced by his Kentucky Derby win on Ferdinand in 1986. A 1991 single-car accident that turned Shoemaker into a quadriplegic is the saddest chapter in his life. However, the mental toughness he exhibited as a rider has given him the strength to fight for his own recovery and to help others who are paralyzed.

Early Challenges

Shoemaker has possessed a courageous spirit since birth. He was born prematurely, weighing just one pound, thirteen ounces, and wasn't expected to live through the night. His grandmother, Maudie Harris, took charge of the situation. She washed him, put him on a pillow in a shoebox, and set it on the open door of the oven to warm. When Shoemaker was four years old, his parents Ruby and Bebe Shoemaker divorced. He and Ruby went to live on the nearby Texas ranch where his grandparents were sharecroppers. It was there that Shoemaker introduced himself to riding by jumping on a pony without benefit of reins, saddle, or supervision. While picking cotton, he also began to think of his future: "I'll never pick up another hoe. There's gotta be a better way to make a living and I'm gonna find it," he said to his grandfather, according to a Sports Illustrated writer.

Both of Shoemaker's parents remarried, and he moved to El Monte, California with his father when he was ten. He had a perfect record competing as a boxer and wrestler in high school, but was frustrated by his small size. At just four feet, eleven inches and ninety-five pounds, Shoemaker would be small even for a jockey. At fifteen he quit school to muck out stalls and work with yearlings. Originally motivated to take the job by the need to work, more than an interest in riding, Shoemaker now considers the experience essential to his understanding of horses.

Exceptional Talents

Shoemaker had his first win on April 20, 1949 riding Shafter V at Golden Gate Fields. In his first full year, he had an impressive 219 winners. And before long, he was predicted to be a perennial winner. In a 1953 Newsweek article jockey Ted Atkinson remarked, "This is a real race rider. He will go on and on." What observers like Atkinson saw was a quiet rider with gentle hands, someone who used smarts to win his races. A Newsweek writer explained, "They attribute to him an excellent sense of pace, an eye for a developing pattern of danger that can be avoided up ahead, and a way of first hustling his horse out of the gate and then letting the animal settle into his stride pretty much on his own until the rider feels the mechanism under him to be functioning smoothly." Nearly a decade later, the accomplished jockey Eddie Arcaro complimented him in Time, saying, "Willie takes such light hold of a horse that he could probably ride with silk threads for reins."

Quiet in the saddle, Shoemaker was also quiet when interviewed, although after decades in the media spotlight, he learned to be more communicative. In 1950 a Newsweek writer described him as someone who "can make a whole conversation out of a nod." At the time he was battling Italian rider Joe Culmone for the year's most wins, but when asked to identify the best jockey, he said "Eddie Arcaro." The jockey was never one to boast about his accomplishments. Shoemaker and Arcaro would in fact become good friends and Shoemaker would credit the other jockey with teaching him to relax and work with the horse rather than resort to the whip. In 1999, Shoemaker was eloquent in his appreciation of another jockey, when Laffit Pincay passed his record 8,833 career wins. He said in an interview for, "There has never been anyone more dedicated to their profession or sport like Pincay. To have my record broken by him is a very big honor."


1931Born August 19 in Fabens, Texas to parents Bebe and Ruby Shoemaker
1949Makes first professional ride on March 19
1950Marries Virginia McLaughlin
1955Has first Kentucky Derby victory
1957Loses Kentucky Derby after misjudging finish line
1960Divorced from first wife
1961Marries Babs Bayer on November 29
1968Breaks femur in riding accident
1969Breaks pelvis, ruptures bladder, and damages nerves in paddock accident
1978Divorced by second wife effective March 6
1978Marries Cindy Barnes on March 7
1979Wins Marlboro Cup on Spectacular Bid
1986Wins Kentucky Derby at age fifty-four
1990Retires from race riding
1991Paralyzed in automobile accident

Related Biography: Jockey Eddie Arcaro

As the only jockey to win two Triple Crowns, Eddie Arcaro is one of the finest riders in racing history. He began riding thoroughbreds at age fourteen and entered his first race in 1931. Arcaro's career took off after his contract was sold to Calumet Farms, which provided his first Derby winner, Larwin, in 1938. He would become known as a strong, instinctual rider who credited his horses in his wins and earned himself the nickname "The Master."

Arcaro had seventeen wins in the legs of the Triple Crownthe Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Preaknessincluding a tie with Bill Hartack for a record five Derby victories. He captured all three in one year for the first time in 1941 with Whirlaway, and then again in 1948 on Citation. When Arcaro rode Nashua in the Derby in 1955, the now senior rider placed second behind Shoemaker on Swaps. A rivalry was made despite the fact that Swaps would not appear in the subsequent Belmont or Preakness, both of which Arcaro would win on Nashua, so a special $100,000 match race was held. In this competition, Arcaro won easily.

The horse that Arcaro admired most was Kelso, with whom he paired to win twelve out of fourteen races at the end of his career. He retired at age forty-five in 1961. His record 554 stakes wins would stand until Shoemaker passed this mark in 1972. After he retired from racing, Arcaro worked as a sportscaster on radio and television. He died at age eighty-one in 1997.

Setting Records

Shoemaker's 8,833 wins represent several decades worth of excellence on thoroughbred tracks. In 1951 the jockey was the leading money winner at $1,329,890. In 1953 he beat the world record for victories in one year with 392 and ended year with 485. He had his first victory in the Kentucky Derby in 1955, when he rode Swaps to a length-and-a-half victory over the favorite Nashua. Another big race came on Jaipur in the 1962 Belmont stakes, a competition in which he nosed out Admiral's Voyage and Crimson Satan. Shoe made a rare and now notorious mistake in the 1957 Kentucky Derby when he misjudged the finish line aboard Gallant Man. The jockey thought he had won the race and stood up in the stirrups prematurely; he was passed by Iron Liege, who won the race. Shoemaker was suspended for fifteen days by Churchill Downs stewards for "gross carelessness." Other riders have marveled

that he was able to put this incident behind him, considering it a potentially mentally debilitating experience.

Struggle with Fame

Because he most often rode on the west coast, Shoemaker soon became a celebrity in southern California. With his ten percent cut of purse money, he was a wealthy man and his second wife Babs Bayer thoroughly enjoyed the lifestyle it afforded them. In the mid-1960s the Shoemakers moved into a Beverly Hills high-rise apartment and were attending glamorous parties. Babs dressed in expensive furs and jewelry, she did charity work, and their names appeared in society columns. Quietly unhappy with these changes, Shoemaker would later say what he thought of his Hollywood acquaintances in Sports Illustrated: "I never really wanted to know them. I went to their houses and I couldn't remember them now if I tried because I want to put it out of my mind." He also reflected, "An athlete's supposed to be doing a job the next day, and those people don't have anything to do. They can sleep all day. It affected my riding. It affected my attitude about it a lot."

The jockey found himself fighting boredom and personal problems at the height of his career. In 1967 he helped make Damascus the horse of the year and his mounts earned more than $3 million for the first time, but the jockey suffered two serious injuries. In January of 1968 he broke his femur when a horse fell and kicked him, resulting in thirteen months of recovery. In April of the next year, a horse threw and crushed him against a paddock hedge. His pelvis was broken in several places, his bladder was torn, and nerves in his leg were damaged. After he again returned to racing, Shoemaker reached one of the greatest hallmarks of his career: in 1970 he passed Johnny Longden's record of most career wins with 6,033 victories. It had taken Longden forty years to set a record that was overturned by Shoemaker in just twenty-two years. Nevertheless, Shoemaker's performance in the saddle was diminished. By 1973 his winning percentage had dropped to seventeen percent from an average of twenty-four percent and he was increasingly absent on the job.

Shoemaker's comeback began with his getting into shape physically, but was most closely linked to a resolution in conflict at home. In February 1977 Babs filed for divorce, citing "irreconcilable differences." That summer Shoemaker became engaged to Cindy Barnes and married her in March of 1978, just a day after his divorce was official. Barnes was then twenty-seven years old and shared her husband's interests in sports and horses. Approximately two years later the couple had a daughter, Amanda.

Return to Form

On the racetrack, Shoemaker entered a new era. In 1979 he won the Marlboro Cup on Spectacular Bid, whom he would describe as the greatest horse he had ever ridden. In a 1980 Sports Illustrated article he explained, "He does everything like a great horse should do it. He won on every kind of track you can imagine. Carried his weight and won. He's so versatile you can move any time you want and then move again if you have to." One of the greatest events of Shoemaker's later career was his 1986 Kentucky Derby victory on Ferdinand. The rider was 54 years old and was himself amazed that he was still racing. The victory was made even sweeter because it was shared with trainer Charles Wittingham, with whom Shoemaker had collaborated in more than 200 stakes wins.

In time, however, Wittingham had to tell Shoemaker that his owners were asking for a younger rider. Having decided to retire in 1990, the jockey agreed to do an unusual, year-long world tour arranged by New Zealander Michael Watt. From the Royal Ascot in England, to Australia, to tiny venues in the American outback, Shoemaker would say good-bye to his fans across the world. According to Sports Illustrated writer Clive Gammon, most people in American thoroughbred racing looked down on the spectacle. But Gammon countered, "On the whole, though, it is perhaps more unsettling to consider how the exit of Shoemaker might have gone, indeed, how it might have been shamefully overlooked, if it had been left to his countrymen." The writer speculated that the jockey's international fame was second only to Muhammad Ali among American athletes. Shoemaker left the job of jockey having taken home about $10 million and holding a twenty-two percent winning record. He immediately turned to training horses, a role that he had begun preparing for at Wittingham's training facility.

Tragic Accident

Ironically, Shoemaker left the dangers of the racetrack only to face paralysis after a single-car rollover accident in 1991. Following a round of golf and several drinks, Shoemaker lost control of his Ford Bronco on straight stretch of highway in San Dimas, California. He swerved across a nine-foot shoulder and rolled down a forty-foot embankment, where he was found with his chin on his chest, his head under the top of the steering wheel. With his spinal cord smashed, Shoemaker was left without control of his arms or legs. When Shoemaker's lawyer pursued several lawsuits seeking to prove medical malpractice and negligence by the State of California, it prompted a very negative public response. Shoemaker would not admit that alcohol played an important role in the accident, despite a bartender's testimony and a blood alcohol test of .13.


Address: Vincent Andrews Management, 315 S. Beverly Hills Dr., Suite 208, Beverly Hills, CA 90212-4310.


(With Dan Smith) The Shoe: Willie Shoemaker's Illustrated Book of Racing, Rand McNally, 1976.

(With Barney Nagler) Shoemaker, Doubleday, 1984.

Stalking Horse, Fawcett, 1995.

Fire Horse, Fawcett, 1995.

Awards and Accomplishments

Shoemaker retired in 1990 with 8,833 wins and earnings totaling over $10 million.
1951Given George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award
1955, 1959 1965, 1986Wins Kentucky Derby
1957, 1959, 1962, 1967, 1975Wins Belmont Stakes
1958Inducted in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame
1963, 1967Wins Preakness Stakes
1970Tops record for most career wins
1981Awarded Eclipse Outstanding Jockey Award and Award of Merit
1990Given Mike Venezia Award

Where Is He Now?

Shoemaker hopes that researchers will discover a way to regenerate damaged spinal chords and is concentrating on being physically prepared for new treatments. He plans to start using a voice-activated computer, which he sees as new way of keeping active and informed. He has also published several novels since his accident, including Dark Horse: A Coley Killebrew Novel, which appeared in 1996.

After spending five and half months in the hospital, Shoemaker returned to training horses while using a wheelchair controlled by a sip-and-puff mechanism. Shoemaker's marriage to Cindy ended three years after the accident and he retired in 1997, having decided that the work took too much time away from his physical therapy. He also serves as director of The Shoemaker Foundation, an organization that was founded to help fund his own medical expenses and which now provides financial assistance to others from the racing industry who are paralyzed. As the honorary chair of the Paralysis Project, Shoemaker uses his legendary status as a jockey to advance spinal chord research. During more than forty years in the saddle, he dazzled his fellow riders, journalists, and sports fans. While his records have been surpassed in part, his importance to thoroughbred racing is still heralded. His exceptional understanding of horses, rare modesty, and mental stamina will be far more difficult to match.

Dark Horse: A Coley Killebrew Novel, Fawcett, 1996.



"A Way with Horses." Time (May 9, 1962): 74.

Gammon, Clive. "The Long Goodbye: Bill Shoemaker, World's Winningest Jockey." Sports Illustrated (February 5, 1990): 54-60.

"The Shoe." Sports Illustrated (June 2, 1980).

Sports Illustrated (April 19, 1993): 73-82.

"Who's Arcaro?" Newsweek (December 11, 1950).

"Willie the Shoo-In." Newsweek (October 19, 1953).


"Horse racing legend Bill Shoemaker." CBS Sports Line (April 7, 2000).

Sketch by Paula Pyzik Scott

Willie Shoemaker

views updated May 21 2018

Willie Shoemaker

Horse racing's most famous jockey, Willie Shoemaker (born 1931) was a tiny, gentle rider who set a world record with 8,833 winning races, including 11 victories in Triple Crown races. He raced for more than 40 years and was the oldest rider (at age 54) and one of the youngest (at age 23) to win the Kentucky Derby.

Weighing under 100 pounds and standing less than five feet tall, Shoemaker was an unlikely star athlete. Yet he seemed always to coax the best performances out of his horses. For decades, he rode in dozens of races nearly every week of the year. After his retirement, he was critically injured in a car accident and became a spokesman for the rights of disabled persons.

From Small Beginnings

Born at his family's rural Texas home in 1931, Billy Lee Shoemaker weighed only one pound, 13 ounces. The doctor attending the birth told his mother the baby wouldn't live. Shoemaker's grandmother put him in a shoebox, turned on the oven, and put the box on the open oven door. The homemade incubator helped the tiny baby defy the odds.

Though his father was nearly six foot tall, Shoemaker remained small as he grew into manhood. His father worked in cotton mills and at odd jobs, and the family moved frequently during the Depression years. When the boy was seven, he went to live on his grandfather's ranch and started riding a horse every day to get the mail. Once, he nearly drowned when he fell into a cattle trough.

Shoemaker preferred riding horses to going to school, and he often skipped classes. When he was ten, his parents divorced, and he went to California to live with his father and his new wife. At El Monte Union High School, Shoemaker weighed only 80 pounds. He tried out for football and basketball, but the coaches thought he was too little. So he turned to wrestling and boxing. As a wrestler, he consistently beat boys bigger than him. He never lost a match.

A girl at school introduced him to a boy who was a jockey, and Shoemaker started working at a thoroughbred horse ranch. After 11th grade, he quit school so he could work full-time at the ranch, cleaning the stables and learning about horses.

Pulled Out in Front

The owner of the ranch was president of Hollywood Park, a racing venue. At the ranch, a retired jockey showed Shoemaker how to ride a thoroughbred. The teenager became immersed in all aspects of training and riding horses. Shoemaker started hanging around California racetracks and became an apprentice to trainer George Reeves. Reeves saw Shoemaker's talent and interest and gave Shoemaker his start at riding.

Shoemaker was only 17 when he rode his first horse in a race, on March 19, 1949, at Golden Gate Fields. His horse, Waxahachie, finished fifth. In his third race, on April 20, Shoemaker entered the winner's circle for the first time, riding a horse named Shafter V. Reeves at first took a lot of criticism for letting such a young and inexperienced jockey ride, but Shoemaker won seven races in his second week in the saddle.

Even for a jockey, Shoemaker was small: four feet eleven inches and 96 pounds. He did little talking and soon earned the nickname "Silent Shoe." His calm demeanor atop his horses also surprised observers. Most jockeys kicked, whipped and pulled hard on the reins. Shoemaker became known for his "soft hands" and gentle riding techniques.

In 1949, even though he had gotten a late start, he won 219 races, second-most in the United States. The following year, he tied the all-time record, set in 1906, by winning 388 races in one season. For much of that year he rode nine races each weekday and 12 others at a different track on Sundays. Throughout his career Shoemaker would hardly pause for breath as he switched horses and rode race after race. Six times in his career he would ride six winners in one day.

In 1950 Shoemaker hooked up with Red McDaniel, the winningest trainer in the country. One day he won four races even though his foot was so swollen from stepping on a stingray at a beach that he had to wear special boots. That year, he raced in New York for the first time and won three races in his first day at the Aqueduct track. He quickly became a national figure. By the time he turned 20, he was the top jockey in the United States and already married to his first wife, Ginny.

Sped Past the Competition

In 1953, Shoemaker rode in about 1,600 races and set a new single-season record by winning 485 of them. That record would stand for more than 20 years. The next season, he won 380 out of 1,251 races, setting a 20th century record for winning percentage by an American rider.

In 1954, Shoemaker began riding horses for breeder-owner Rex Ellsworth, including Swaps. Shoemaker and Swaps upset veteran jockey Eddie Arcaro and his favored horse Nashua in the Kentucky Derby. Later that year, Nashua beat Swaps in a famous match race.

In the 1957 Kentucky Derby, Shoemaker made a rare mental mistake, mistaking a furlong pole for the finish line and standing up in his stirrups before the race was finished. His horse, Gallant Man, ended up losing by a nose to Iron Liege, and Shoemaker was suspended for 15 days, even though his was an innocent error and might not have been decisive. After that, Churchill Downs painted a big bull'seye at the finish line. Shoemaker rode Gallant Man to victory in the Belmont Stakes a few weeks later.

Early in 1958, Shoemaker notched his 3,000th win. He again was the year's leading rider, winning 300 races. For the next seven years he would be the sport's biggest money winner. In 1959, Shoemaker again won the Kentucky Derby, riding Tomy Lee, who beat Sword Dancer, the horse Shoemaker had wanted to ride. Shoemaker rode Sword Dancer to fourth place in the Preakness and then to victory in the Belmont Stakes. Shoemaker won 347 races for the year, tops again. At age 27, he was inducted into the Jockeys' Hall of Fame at the Pimlico track in Florida.

In May 1961, Shoemaker, not yet 30, won his 4,000th race—a mark only three other jockeys in horse racing history had achieved. That year, he married his second wife, Babbs. Shoemaker won the Belmont again in 1962, riding Jaipur, and in 1963 won the Preakness for the first time, riding Candy Spots. Early in 1964, Shoemaker surpassed Arcaro's career earnings record with more than $30 million. In October of that year, Shoemaker got his 5,000th win.

Overcame Adversity

In 1965, Shoemaker won his third Kentucky Derby, riding Lucky Debonair. He was the most famous jockey in the United States, and a well-known sports figure worldwide. In 1967, he won the Belmont and the Preakness on Damascus. Within 13 years ending in 1967, he had won nine Triple Crown races.

In January 1968, Shoemaker's horse went down in a race at Santa Anita. Shoemaker broke his leg when he fell off and was struck by the hind leg of another horse. For a while, Shoemaker didn't believe he would ever race again. But after months of therapy, he returned to race at Santa Anita in February 1969, winning all three races he rode that day. "As it turns out, it's possible that spill prolonged my career because it made me realize how much I loved riding horses," Shoemaker wrote in his autobiography. "You get blasé when you're doing well year after year. Then you have a setback, and you realize you have no business being blasé."

Shoemaker's bad luck continued a few months later when he suffered an injury two days before he was to race in the Kentucky Derby. A horse flipped backwards and fell on him, breaking his pelvis, rupturing his bladder and causing other internal injuries as well as nerve damage in his leg. This time, the Shoe was out three months.

In 1970, Shoemaker targeted jockey John Longden's all-time win record of 6,032. He passed 6,000 in August and then battled increasing media attention as he closed in on the mark. On September 7, he broke the record, riding a filly named Dares J. Longden had taken 40 years to compile his record, but Shoemaker had broken it in 22 seasons. And the Shoe was far from finished.

By 1975, at the age of 43, he was still one of the top jockeys in the world, winning the Belmont Stakes on Avatar. On March 14, 1976, at Santa Anita, Shoemaker reached another milestone with his 7,000th win. He had teamed up with trainer Charles Wittingham and together they formed one of the most successful partnerships in horse racing history. In 1978, he divorced Babbs and married his third wife, Cindy Barnes, and they had a daughter, Amanda.

Refused to Quit

Although his pace slowed down as he aged, Shoemaker continued to win big races. In 1981 he became the first jockey to win a one-million-dollar race when he rode John Henry in the first Arlington Million. Entering the Kentucky Derby in 1986, Shoemaker was considered too old to be a factor. But he won the race on Ferdinand, despite 18-to-1 odds against the horse.

When Shoemaker finally decided to retire, a farewell tour was organized. For nine months, crowds came to see Shoe, who raced at 48 tracks, including tracks in England, Sweden and Germany as well as out-of-the-way places in Texas and Oklahoma. His last ride was February 3, 1990, at Santa Anita, and 64,573 spectators turned out, but Shoe-maker's horse finished fourth.

In his career, Shoemaker rode 40,350 mounts and won 8,333 races, including 1,009 stakes races and 11 Triple Crown races. His horses earned more than $123 million in purses. In ten different years, he was the top money winner on the racing circuit. Shoemaker often said he didn't place much stock in records and that every record he set would eventually be broken. In 1999, his career record of 8,333 wins was eclipsed by jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr.

After his retirement, Shoemaker became a trainer in southern California. His life changed dramatically on April 8, 1991. Driving home from a golf outing, he lost control of his Ford Bronco, which plummeted over a 50-foot embankment. Shoemaker was left paralyzed from the neck down. Arrested on suspicion of drunken driving with a blood-alcohol level twice the legal limit, he was never prosecuted, because no other victims were involved in the accident.

Though the crash left him a quadriplegic for life, the indomitable Shoemaker refused to give up. Taking up physical therapy for the third time, he resumed horse training in a supervisory role in September 1991, and kept working as a trainer, using a mouth-controlled wheelchair, until he retired in November 1997. His fans rallied too, contributing to a $2 million endowment of the Shoemaker Foundation, organized by friends, which helped pay for Shoemaker's treatment and support and for other horse trainers, grooms and jockeys who were injured.

In 1993, Shoemaker and Ford Motor Company agreed to a $1 million settlement of his claim that poor automotive design had caused the rollover accident. The automaker admitted no culpability. For his part, Shoemaker asked for no sympathy. "You have to play the hand you're dealt," he told writer William Nack of Sports Illustrated, "and I was dealt this one." In 1994, his third wife, Cindy, divorced him.

After retiring as a trainer, Shoemaker continued as honorary chairman of the Paralysis Project, an organization dedicated to improving spinal cord research and treatment. "The most important thing," he told an interviewer for Web MD Live, "is don't ever, ever, ever give up."


Shoemaker, Willie and Dan Smith, The Shoe: Willie Shoemaker's Illustrated Book of Racing, Rand McNally, 1976.


Automotive News, March 1, 1993.

People Weekly, April 29, 1991.

Sports Illustrated, February 5, 1990; April 19, 1993.

U.S. News and World Report, February 12, 1990.


"Mind Over Body: The Willie Shoemaker Story with Willie Shoemaker," MSNBC Heath,

"Shoemaker made racing history," ESPN Sports Century,

"Willie Shoemaker, Ageless Sultan of the Saddle," Famous Texans, □

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