Picking Bill Shoemaker's 10 most memorable rides is kind of like listing the 10 best touchdown drives engineered by Joe Montana. They are all variations on the same successful theme.
Ask a fan in the stands and the answer might be, "Shoe won me a $500 exacta at Del Mar in '78." Crusty race track veterans recall the way Shoemaker patiently handled Rex Ellsworth's roguish maidens in the 1950s.
When Hall of Fame trainer Lazaro Barrera was asked about his favorite Shoemaker performance, the answer came without a moment's hesitation:
"Shoemaker rode the first winner I ever had in this country in 1960," Barrera said. "A horse named Destructor, and it was the only one I had at the time. I don't see how any race could have meant more to me."
No one can argue with the quality and importance of the rides that follow, but every Shoemaker fan no doubt will embellish the list with personal memories. These 10, at least, deserve to be remembered:
MARCH 10, 1962
San Juan Capistrano Handicap at Santa Anita
Shoemaker impressed even himself with this ride, a mile and three-quarter mind-blower that ranks with the best front-running performances of all time.
Shoemaker rode Rex Ellsworth's Olden Times, a 4-year-old son of Relic whose best races were usually at one mile. In his previous start, Olden Times had led the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap to the eighth pole before giving up the lead to Physician.
In front from the start of the longer San Juan, Olden Times and Shoemaker repelled wave after wave of challenges. The Axe II, ridden by Milo Valenzuela, clung to Shoe like glue. Fighting Felix with Ray York, Micarlo with Jack Leonard and Vinci with Henry Moreno all fired and fell back.
Finally, Rudy Campas came flying with Juanro, but it was too late. Shoemaker had snookered them all, winning by a neck.
"He did everything himself," Shoemaker said of Olden Times. "I just sat there."
Then what was so good about the ride?
"When those other horses took shots at him, he would let them get within about a neck and then move away," Shoemaker recalled. "He'd get a length in front, then relax again.
"The thing that made it a good ride on my part was that I didn't hinder the horse. Another jock might have been tempted to go to riding him when another horse came alongside. I could see he had everything under control."
FEBRUARY 20, 1964
Santa Susana Stakes at Santa Anita
Shoemaker's finesse with fillies is legendary, but never was it more in evidence than on this day with W.R. Hawn's pride and joy, Blue Norther. The graceful daughter of Windy City II came into the 1 1/16-mile Santa Susana off an eventful 2-year-old campaign and a victory in her first start at 3. She was challenging William Haggin Perry's Face the Facts, the reigning queen of the local division.
Shoemaker knew Face the Facts had the advantage of early speed. He had chased her in vain aboard Leisurely Kin in the seven-furlong Santa Ynez Stakes one month earlier, when Face the Facts won by 10 1/2 lengths.
As anticipated, Face the Facts went right to the lead again in the Santa Susana. Shoemaker let Blue Norther establish her rhythm, then went after the leader down the backstretch. They raced as a team through the last three-eighths mile, with the unruffled Shoemaker on the outside and Manuel Ycaza flailing away at Face the Facts on the inside.
The two chestnut fillies reached the wire together, but Blue Norther's nose was there first, and Shoemaker was the difference.
JANUARY 29, 1966
Charles H. Strub Stakes at Santa Anita
This reporter's choice.
Watching Shoemaker in big-race competition for the first time, an impressionable teen-age racing fan was left with an impression of infallibility.
Shoemaker appeared to tease his opposition in the bulky field of 14, allowing his mount, Bold Bidder, to dally near the pace for the longest time. Then, with barely a flex of his forearms, Shoemaker released his colt into racing history.
Bold Bidder spurted clear of the pack around the final turn and did not stop until he had won by six lengths and set a track record of 1:59 3/5 for the 1 1/4 miles. The record for the Strub stood 14 years before Bold Bidder's son, Spectacular Bid, shattered it--with Shoemaker aboard.
Much later, when a token amount of racing knowledge filtered out youthful innocence, that same impressionable teen-ager realized Bold Bidder did most of the work in winning the Strub. But he could never be convinced that the horse would have done it for anyone but Shoemaker.
MARCH 3, 1966
The Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah
The race lives in infamy as "the Chicken Flamingo," a celebrated Triple Crown prep turned into a non-betting exhibition because track President Eugene Mori feared a catastrophic minus pool when Buckpasser won. And there was no way he could lose.
"The hardest race to win is the race you're supposed to win," Shoemaker always has said.