In the wild world of horse racing, Bill "The Shoe" Shoemaker stands out as one of the most interesting personalities to grace the tracks. For nearly forty years he was the winningest jockey in horse racing history.
Bill Shoemaker was born in Fabens, Texas on August 19, 1931. He was (of course) a very small infant, and legend has it that he slept in a shoebox for six months, which earned him his double-joke moniker "The Shoe." Throughout high school, he showed he had quite a physical presence despite his size, excelling in boxing and wrestling. However, his 4 foot 11 frame was ideal for jockeying, and he took up horse racing to make some money.
If The Shoe Fits
He shipped out to La Puente, California where he made $75 a month riding small-time horses for small-time owners. He won his first race in San Francisco on April 20, 1949. By 1951, while still an apprentice jockey, he was the winningest rider in the nation. He dominated the field over the next ten years, setting the record for wins in a season (485) in 1953 that wouldn't be broken until 1974. Two years later he won his first Kentucky Derby aboard Swaps.
Waiting For The Shoe To Drop
The following year, atop Gallant Man, Shoemaker again took the early lead at the Derby. He was up by three lengths in the final stretch - and then made the drastic mistake of standing up a full furlong early, giving Iron Liege the win. In 1957, Derby officials placed markers at the finish line for the first time. Shoemaker wouldn't make that mistake again, and he got his revenge by winning the Belmont Stakes on Gallant Man.
Shoe Me The Money
From 1959 to 1969, Shoemaker was racing's winningest jockey, and he pulled in hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorships and salaries. He twice won the Kentucky Derby (1959 - Tomy Lee; 1965 - Lucky Debonair), twice at Preakness (1963 - Candy Spots; 1967 - Damascus), and three times at Belmont (1959 - Sword Dancer; 1962 - Jaipur; and with Damascus). One night after a gala affair, Shoemaker and his trainer went out after midnight to Churchill Downs and he rode Lucky Debonair in a full tuxedo!
In 1968, Shoemaker was thrown from his mount and broke his leg. Just two weeks after his return to the stable, he again fell, and the damage was more serious - a ruptured bladder, broken pelvis, and permanent nerve damage in his right leg. Still, Willie (his common nickname, though he preferred Bill) continued to pull off victory after victory. Finally on September 7, 1970, he won his 6033rd race, setting the record once held by Johnny Longden.
Old Hat, Old Shoe
In 1975, he pulled off an upset with Avatar at Belmont to capture his fifth title, a record which stands to this day. By now Bill was approaching 50 years old, and very few jockeys stayed in past 40, the wear and tear on their bodies being too great for such a small system. Bill proved them all wrong on a warm May day in 1986.
A Horseshoe In His Pocket
At 55, he sat atop Ferdinand, an 18-1 favorite at the Kentucky Derby. As the pack started, he stuck to the middle. As they roared around the 3/4-mile turn and headed into the homestretch, Shoemaker spotted his hole and began to charge. Fifth place, fourth place, third place, second place, and finally, the lead was his with just three lengths to go. He sealed it with the horse and jockey that couldn't by putting a 2 1/2-length distance between him and second place. It was flabbergasting, and yet for Shoemaker, it was just another ride.
Filling His Shoes
By now though, rides became few and far between for the aging rider. Finally, in 1989, he announced he would be going on a farewell tour to all of the major racetracks and some minor ones, too. His last race came on February 3, 1990. As he took the early lead (he would finish fourth) track announcer Trevor Denman, normally the sole neutral voice in the house, began yelling, "C'mon, Shoe!" It was a touching moment to cap off the career of one of the greatest jockeys ever.
The Shoe Drops
After jockeying, Shoemaker settled down to train in Santa Ana, but then his wild life caught up with him. On April 8, 1991, after having a few too many drinks, he took off for home late at night on a deserted highway near San Dimas. While trying to make a cell phone call home, he lost control of his car, and flipped down a fifty-foot embankment. Miraculously he survived - but he was paralyzed from the neck down.
He continued to train, but he wasn't the same Shoe. He finally retired in 1997, a legend to the very end. In 1999, he watched Laffit Pincay break his record for victories - which had stood at 8,833. Bill Shoemaker passed away October 11, 2003, in Santa Ana, California. He was 72.