As a jockey, what made Bill Shoemaker tick?
He never seemed to have the competitive fire of an Eddie Arcaro.
A physical contest between a Laffit Pincay and Shoemaker would have been a mismatch.
Shoemaker didn't possess the calculated recklessness of an Angel Cordero.
Shoemaker couldn't whip horses like a Ted Atkinson.
Shoemaker wouldn't break horses out of the gate like Pat Valenzuela.
Yet these are the numbers, going into Saturday at Santa Anita, where Shoemaker will ride for the last time in a $100,000, one-mile grass race called the Legend's Last Ride Handicap:
--1,009 wins in stakes races.
--257 wins in stakes worth $100,000 or more.
--Purses of $123,398,882.
Shoemaker was so good that he was elected into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1958, only nine years after his career started and well before he began piling up wholesale victories in Triple Crown races and other stakes around the country. Nine of Shoemaker's 11 Triple Crown victories came after his induction into the Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Shoemaker was so good that, at 54, he won a Kentucky Derby--with Ferdinand--and, having turned 56, rode the same colt to victory in the $3-million Breeders' Cup Classic.
Shoemaker has fun answering questions. He used to say, unequivocably, that Spectacular Bid was the best horse he ever rode. Later, like the trainer- politician he must become when his next career begins on Sunday, he spread the superlatives around, saying that Spectacular Bid AND Swaps were the best horses he ever rode.
Shoemaker also said in 1986 that Ferdinand's Derby was his most satisfying achievement. But he was probably closer to the truth when he said more recently: "Aside from the records and all the winning, something that pleased me more was that at 58 I was still able to ride pretty good. I couldn't do it as often, but with rest in between, I could still do it. I couldn't ride like I was 25, but I could still ride as well as lot of guys who are only 25."
Shoemaker is getting out, he says, "because I want to leave in one piece. My only enemy has been Father Time."
So again, the question persists: What made Shoemaker tick?
Arcaro, who held a lot of the records Shoemaker broke--and who still holds the record for Triple Crown wins with 17 in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont--seems like a representative ex-jockey to ask.
"Shoe had the finest hands in the game," Arcaro said. "And when a jock has good hands, they can be more effective than a whip.
"Shoe's had great rapport with horses. 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."
Johnny Longden, who did what Shoemaker would like to do in the coming years, going from riding Kentucky Derby winners to training one, has a different theory.
"I've always admired Shoe's attitude," Longden said. "His attitude is that whatever happens, happens. He would never have done what he's done without that attitude. When I was riding and things weren't going right, I'd get mad at myself. You never saw Shoe doing that. I could have won a lot more races (he won 6,032, a record before Shoemaker broke it) if I could have approached the game the way he did."
In 1959, Shoemaker left the winner's circle at Arlington Park after capturing his 3,500th race, walked into the jockeys' room and threw his whip down. "I hope the next 3,500 come as easy," he said.
Riders around Shoemaker laughed. Not only did Shoemaker win the next 3,500, he won more than a 1,000 races on top of that.
Arcaro says that Shoemaker could have won even more. That que sera sera that Longden envied might have worked both ways.
"Shoemaker lost more races than anybody I know just because he refused to jam some other rider up," Arcaro said. "That cost him a lot of wins early in his career, but later on it served him well, when he got older. But he deserves all his success. He was the fairest rider I ever knew."
Because of the few times he's ridden this year, Shoemaker's career will have spanned six decades, having begun in the last year of the 1940s. When Shoemaker started riding, Harry Truman was president, Joe DiMaggio was in center field for the Yankees, Joe Louis was the heavyweight champion and Ben Hogan was the best golfer around. Sandy Hawley, who has won almost 6,000 races, was BORN in 1949.
Shoemaker was born little--one pound, 13 ounces--and stayed that way. At 4-11, he seldom has weighed more than 100 pounds. The only time anyone can remember him not making weight for a race was a day at Hollywood Park in 1967, when he was a pound over for a horse assigned 107 pounds.