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THE SHOE: REFLECTIONS ON A LEGEND : Young Riders Will Have Little Shoe to Fill : Jockeys: Shoemaker's unique makeup, especially weight control, will be difficult to match.

February 01, 1990|JAY HOVDEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Will there be another Bill Shoemaker? Of course. And someday there will be another Ice Age, another Hope diamond, and another Joe DiMaggio.

The set of circumstances that converged to form Shoemaker and send him to the top of his profession are not likely to strike in such rapturous harmony again. Scores of young riders have come and gone in his lifetime, trading on promises of being the "next Shoemaker."

If there is going to be another Shoemaker, certain standards must be applied: longevity, durability and productivity in the most pressurized circumstances. These three factors helped set Shoemaker apart and kept him unique during four decades of competition.

Shoemaker's individual skills were not particularly unusual. Jockeys before and since have been able to break, rate, switch sticks or finish just as well. The difference was in the mix, for Shoemaker blended those skills into a concoction that had oldtimers scratching their heads and looking for the mirrors.

This is how Shoemaker excelled:

--The physical. His light weight eliminated the horrors of reducing. At 98 pounds, he possessed the reflexes of a Golden Gloves boxer (which he was) and the strength of a wrestler (which he also was). He understood the anatomy of the thoroughbred--what made it run and what he could do to make it run faster.

--The mental. Serene confidence in his ability kept him from dwelling on failures. Clean riding kept him from making enemies and courting needless injuries. A youthful, puckish attitude kept him from getting bored.

--The economic. In the 1950s, a relative handful of major stables and trainers dominated the richest American events. Once Shoemaker insinuated himself at that level, his continued success became self-perpetuating. He usually won because he was on the best horse; and he was on the best horse because he usually won.

But even Shoemaker had to overcome his share of prejudice.

"I remember feeling sorry for him because he was so small," said the late Alfred Shelhamer, steward and former jockey. "I figured he'd never get to ride the good horses because of all the dead weight they would have to carry."

Shoemaker's short legs gave him an unorthodox perch on horseback. Unlike his contemporaries, he sent his horses signals of encouragement through the reins and bit, rather than with the whip. Dan Smith, one of his biographers, recalled the early reactions to the new kid from Texas.

'When Shoe came around his style went against the accepted norm," Smith said. "And if you're going to do that, you'd better be good or you'll get buried."

Instead, it was Shoemaker who outlived wave after wave of hopeful young riders who thought they could take his place.

Fernando Toro has seen more than his share of "next Shoemakers." He has ridden against Shoemaker for the last 24 years, ever since coming to California from his native Chile by way of Florida. When Shoemaker cleans out his cubicle in the Santa Anita jockeys' room Saturday night, Toro, who turned 49 on Wednesday, will become the senior member of the Southern California riding colony.

"There are a lot of reasons there won't be another Shoemaker," Toro began. "And the most important is, you will never find another person with the same attitude, day in and day out, year after year. I have never seen any other big-name jockey who could take both winning and losing with such an even temper.

"Sure, he never had to fight the weight, and that plays a big part in your attitude," Toro continued. "And he was usually on the best horse. Even he would admit that.

"But even in the last few years, when he stopped getting the good horses to ride, you would never hear him complain."

Toro also cites the level of competition as a factor in making another Shoemaker unlikely.

"Twenty years ago, you go to a place like California, Florida or New York and there were maybe 40 riders in the colony," Toro said. "Of those, maybe five of them could be considered absolutely the best. One man like Shoemaker could dominate.

"Today, you go almost anyplace and there are 80 jockeys fighting for mounts, and 15 of them are really top riders. Think how hard it is for one guy to stand out year after year, like Shoemaker did."

Only a handful of names come up today when Shoemaker comparisons are made. Laffit Pincay, second only to Shoemaker in lifetime wins, is another prototype completely--the classic power rider who spends his life battling weight. Eddie Delahoussaye and Gary Stevens are also at the heavy end of the scale, as is Jose Santos in the east; but each owes a debt to Shoemaker when it comes to finesse and grace under pressure.

"Pat Day might come closest to Shoemaker because of his size," noted Toro. "He doesn't have a weight problem. He never seems to let anything bother him."

Day, the perennial leader of the Midwest and a four-time national champion, began 1990 with 4,642 victories after 17 years of competition. Through his first 17 years, Shoemaker had won 4,510 races.

Chris McCarron, the latest jockey to join Shoemaker in the racing Hall of Fame, has been on a record pace through the first 16 years of his career. Through the end of 1989, McCarron had won 5,101 races. But McCarron has shifted his emphasis and is content to win more money and fewer races these days. At his present rate, he could pass Shoemaker's record win total, as long as he rides to age 50.

"Not likely," McCarron said. "I don't see how Shoe has kept at it so long. I know I couldn't."

And, of course, there's the kid on the horizon, Kent Desormeaux, who had ridden 1,575 winners in his first four seasons, primarily on the Maryland circuit.

"Let's wait and see about him after he starts riding in California or New York," said Toro. "Who knows? Maybe riding against better competition will make him even better. That's very possible.

"But another Shoemaker? No, no, that's impossible," Toro concluded. "Maybe another Toro, but never another Shoemaker."

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