At age 56, Bill Shoemaker is competing in his 40th year as a professional athlete. His 8,725 victories (as of Jan. 16, 1988) make him the winningest jockey of all time. Of the races he has won, 986 were stakes races, and 246 of those were worth $100,000 or more. The total purse money (through Dec. 27, 1987) won by the horses he has ridden is almost $118 million. How long can Shoemaker continue racing? In an interview early last year, he said: "It looks like I'm going to be at it another year. Another year at least." Well, he raced all of 1987, and if all continues well he could break his own record as the oldest man to win a Kentucky Derby. In April, the book "Shoemaker" will be published. With Barney Nagler, Shoemaker tells his story from Aug. 19, 1931, the day he was born in Fabens, Tex., to the day he won his fourth Kentucky Derby in 1986 at age 54. Following are excerpts from his forthcoming book.
NO, IT DIDN'T BEGIN IN A SHOE BOX
WHEN I STARTED to attract attention in racing, newspaper writers put a lot of words in my mouth. They were wrong, but I didn't think it was important to set them straight. A lot of things they wrote about me got to be taken as gospel. One thing that became a legend about me was that I was put into a shoe box and shoved into the stove in my grandmother's house when I was born. I weighed 2 1/2 pounds.
They wrote this so often that people believed it. A few years ago I went down to Fabens, which is on the Rio Grande, 30 miles downriver from El Paso, and found out the truth.
My grandmother, Maude Harris, was 92 then, and she could remember just about everything that ever happened to our family. I was there with some people who were shooting a television show about me, and as we sat around in her old house they asked her to tell the story of how she put me in a shoe box. My mother said, "Momma, tell them the story about when you put him in the shoe box and the doctor said he wouldn't live through the night."
Grandma Harris said: "The doctor just laid you down on the bed and said there were no chance for you at all. So I got up and sat down in front of the stove and got some wraps, warmed them and put them around you. No, I didn't stick you in no oven. I just got some pillows and put you on the stove door. That's what I did."
The heat coming out of the oven kept me warm, and I lived. My Aunt Effie--my mother's older sister--says: "When I saw him when he was 2 months old, I said, 'You mean that's a baby? Oh, my God! He looks like a little rat.' "
The First Horse
MY FATHER AND mother were divorced when I was 3. I stayed with my mother in Fabens, and then my younger brother, Lonnie, and I went to live part time with my grandfather. He was called "Big Ed" Harris, and he was the foreman of a ranch in Winters, about 30 miles southwest of Abilene. That is where I rode my first horse.
My mother left me alone in the corral one day. I must have been 4 or 5, and when she wasn't looking, I climbed up on a fence near this old horse. Then I grabbed the horse's mane and kind of slipped over on its back. I kicked the horse a little bit, and he just kind of walked around the corral. My mother says everybody was scared when they came out of the house and saw me up on that old horse. It made me feel 10 feet tall.
That first ride, the writers said later, made me believe that I could be a jockey. That wasn't true. Becoming a jockey is learned. It isn't a born thing. Back then in Texas, I didn't dream of being a jockey. I didn't even know about race tracks.
Texas to El Monte, and Racing
IT WAS when I first went to school in Fabens that I realized I was smaller than other kids. I was first in line in my class. No one ever talked about it, but I knew that I was a runt. My Aunt Effie was very small, and I always said she was the only one in the family I could look straight in the eye. My father, B. B. Shoemaker, was 5 feet, 11 inches, and my mom was just under 5 feet, 4 inches. She still towers over me (I'm 4 feet, 11 inches), and she's 73 years old.
My father usually worked picking cotton or on the cotton gin. But things were tough in Texas during the Depression, so when he heard about jobs opening up in California, he moved there with his second wife, Vivian, and their four sons. I was 10 and Lonnie was almost 9 when we went to stay with my father and Vivian in a town called El Monte.
I went to grade school in Baldwin Park, and by the time I entered El Monte Union High School, I was still a scrawny-looking runt. I realized that the girls didn't want to be around a guy like me. I don't remember if it bothered me, but I think it did. Maybe that's why I hung around with the big football players. They had all the girls. Or maybe it was because I liked sports.