First to ride 8,000 winners, great won Derby four times

No jockey had finer hands, fellow legend Arcaro said

Bill Shoemaker : 1931 - 2003

Horse Racing

October 13, 2003|By Bill Christine | Bill Christine,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES - Bill Shoemaker, the Hall of Fame jockey who rode more than 8,800 winners, including four Kentucky Derby champions, in a career spanning five decades, died yesterday at his home in Arcadia, Calif. He was 72.

Shoemaker, who had been rendered a quadriplegic in 1990 by injuries sustained in an automobile accident, "died in his sleep of natural causes," said Paddy Gallagher, a trainer at Santa Anita Park who once worked as an assistant to the racing great.

"I talked with him a few days ago," said Marje Everett, former chief executive at Hollywood Park and one of Shoemaker's close friends, who said he told her he had an infection. "He said there was an infection. He had a fever and said that they had put him on antibiotics. It didn't sound good. I'm just heart-broken."

In his prime, Bill Shoemaker was widely regarded as one of the best jockeys in the world. It was said horses loved running for Shoemaker because he rode them gently, with what the late Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray once called "the effortless ease and grace of a guy born to do what he was doing."

The great jockey Eddie Arcaro once observed that Shoemaker "had the finest hands in the game. And when a jock has good hands, they can be more effective than a whip.

"Shoe's had great rapport with horses," Arcaro said. "He had great balance. Horses would run for him, and I've always wanted to know why. I always thought that you had to make horses run. But not Shoemaker. He got them to run without pushing them."

Shoemaker was the first jockey to win 8,000 races and the first jockey to earn more than $100 million over his career. He was the first jockey to win a $1 million race, capturing the Arlington Million aboard John Henry in 1981.

He holds the record for Kentucky Derby rides with 26 and, in 1986, became the oldest jockey to win the Derby, winning the race aboard Ferdinand when he was 54.

He broke Johnny Longden's record for most career wins with 6,032 in 1970. He held the record for nearly 30 years, adding steadily to the total to finish his career with 8,833 wins. Laffitt Pincay passed him in 1999 and retired in April with 9,530 victories.

Shoemaker, who was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1958, never rode a horse that swept the Triple Crown, but he won 11 Triple Crown races - four Derbys, two Preaknesses and five Belmonts. Only Arcaro, with 17 Triple Crown wins, has won more.

"Bill knew when a horse was doing his best or loafing," said the late Rex Ellsworth, the breeder and owner of Swaps, who in 1955 gave Shoemaker his first Derby win. "When a horse was doing his best, Shoe left him alone. When a horse loafed, Shoe would get after him. I never worried when Shoe rode one of my horses, because I knew he'd do a perfect job."

William Lee Shoemaker was born on Aug. 19, 1931, in a small adobe shack in Fabens, Texas. His parents were B.B. and Ruby Shoemaker - she was 17 - and after the delivery a doctor came and said that the baby, weighing one pound, 13 ounces, had little chance to survive.

Shoemaker, according to one of his biographers, Barney Nagler, learned that the story about how his grandmother, Maudie Harris, put him in a shoebox and used an open-door warm oven as an incubator, was apocryphal.

By the time Shoemaker was three, his parents had divorced. At nine, he moved to El Monte, not far from Santa Anita, to live with his father, his younger brother and his father's second wife, who had four children. Shoemaker boxed and wrestled for teams at El Monte Union High School, where a classmate suggested that he was the right size to be a jockey. At 14, Shoemaker went to work at the Suzy Q Ranch in La Puente.

Two years later, he went to Bay Meadows, a track in San Mateo, and landed a job as an exercise rider with trainer Hurst Philpot. Johnny Adams, a future Hall of Fame jockey and Philpot's stable rider, showed Shoemaker the ropes.

It was at Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco where Shoemaker, with his third mount, the 3-year-old filly Shafter V, won his first race. The winner's purse was less than $1,500.

By 1990, Shoemaker envisioned a training career. There was a national farewell tour of many racetracks, which ended with his final race at Santa Anita.

His first training winner came in June of 1990 at Hollywood Park. His first stakes winner came nine weeks later at Del Mar. But in April of 1991, after playing a round of golf, he was en route to joining friends for dinner when his Ford Bronco careened off the road and rolled over. Shoemaker's blood-alcohol level was in excess of the legal limit. Paralyzed from the neck down, he received a settlement from Ford Motor Co.

Following his rehabilitation, Shoemaker had resumed training at the end of 1991, but the physical demands were too much and he retired in 1997.

His survivors include a daughter, Amanda, from his third marriage.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing company.

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