Bill Shoemaker is a man of his word. He vowed many times through the years that he would never stay in the saddle as long as his old pal Johnny Longden, who quit riding in 1966 at 59.
But Shoemaker cut it close. When he hangs up his size-1 1/2 riding boots at Santa Anita Saturday, he will be 6 1/2 months shy of his 59th birthday on Aug. 19.
One thing is certain: Shoemaker has no shot at going out with the same drama Longden provided in his last ride on that smoggy March afternoon in Arcadia 24 years ago. The contrivances surrounding Shoemaker's last ride, shoehorned into a live television format, make for an artificial atmosphere. The race was invented for the occasion. Of course, no one will be surprised if Shoemaker rises to that occasion with a victory. But he will receive the same ovations, win or lose.
Longden, on the other hand, practically called his shot. His final ride aboard George Royal in the 1966 San Juan Capistrano Handicap ranks with Sarazen's double eagle at the Masters and Kirk Gibson's ninth-inning home run against Oakland in the 1988 World Series.
Unlike Shoemaker's finale at Santa Anita, which has been in the hands of public relations people for more than six months, Longden's last hurrah was spontaneous, with barely 48 hours' warning. It was also long overdue. He had won the Triple Crown on Count Fleet in 1943 and five national titles, but nearly 40 years of spills and breakdowns had taken their toll. Longden wasn't just feeling his age; he had an ache or a pain to go with every one of his record 6,030 victories.
In the winter of 1966, he was kicked in the back by a filly named Douceville. The resulting pinched nerve required total rest to heal, but Longden continued to ride. His right leg suffered the worst effects of the injury, as it began to shrink both in length and circumference. The Longden limp became a sad trademark of the proud and fearless "Pumper."
On the way to a dinner in his honor, Longden decided to announce his retirement. His last ride would be aboard George Royal in the San Juan Capistrano two days later, on March 12, after which he would begin a new career as a trainer. Many in the crowd were surprised and secretly pleased, for the racing community had been dreading the day Longden's reflexes failed at a crucial moment.
But Longden refused to go quietly. He had accepted four mounts on his last day. He won with the first one, a sprinter named Chiclero. He followed with a sixth place and a third place to set the stage for George Royal and the San Juan.
Longden and George Royal had won the race in 1965, but the horse had been running far below his best form in early '66. Several horses in the field of nine were given a better chance of winning, including Hill Rise, Tom Cat and Cedar Key, ridden by Shoemaker.
"John was a tough old rider back then," Shoemaker recalled. "We all wanted to beat him one last time."
George Royal was last when the field galloped past the stands the first time as u Plaque and Bobby Ussery set the pace. Longden hugged the rail around the clubhouse turn, then angled out on the backstretch to begin his long, steady run at the leaders.
Just past the half-mile pole, Manuel Ycaza, riding Hill Rise, looked over his right shoulder and saw the old man on the move. Ycaza gave Hill Rise a push and tried to move with George Royal, but Longden had the momentum. As George Royal swept past Hill Rise, Longden sawed off just enough of the corner to make Ycaza pull up slightly, eliminating Hill Rise.
George Royal banked into the stretch with dead aim on Plaque. They came together at the eighth pole, and George Royal edged into the lead. But Plaque fought back. Longden had been hitting his horse left-handed, then went to a ferocious shoulder-pumping finish for the final 50 yards. Ussery was all over Plaque, doing everything but jumping off to push.
"Damn right I wanted to beat that old s.o.b.," Ussery said later. "I didn't care if it was his last race."
Longden's memories of the finish are still vivid.
"Ussery hit his horse everywhere but the bottom of his feet," Longden said earlier this week from his Arcadia home. "At the wire, I knew it was either a dead-heat or I had won it. It was a great way to go out."
In the final strides, George Royal dropped his nose to the wire just in time. Longden had performed the miracle. Victory number 6,032 was by far the most unlikely of his career. Sitting atop George Royal in the winner's circle, Longden doffed his helmet, smoothed back his toupee and saluted the crowd, more than 60,000 strong.
While Shoemaker cannot hope to top the excitement of Longden's last ride, neither can he expect to reap similar success as a trainer. Shoemaker would have to win nothing less than the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Longden embarked on his training career just two days after his final ride. That Monday he flew to Florida, where he inspected the racing stock of Canadian industrialist Frank McMahon.