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The Shoe: Reflections On A Legend : Insider Accounts


Here are the recollections of some people who have known Bill Shoemaker over the years: Bob Hebert

Hebert, a retired turf writer and handicapper for The Times, laughs when he recalls his first impression of the Shoe.

"I first saw him ride as an apprentice not long after he'd ridden his first winner at Golden Gate," said Hebert, a turfwriter and handicapper for 39 years before his retirement in 1974. "I remember this one race where he came into the stretch with a two- or three-length lead.

"He reached back to hit the horse and threw himself completely off balance and wound up losing the race. I thought this kid was never going to make it."

Hebert wasn't alone with his initial opinion. At Del Mar, habitues of the press box voted Glen Lasswell the most promising apprentice.

More than 40 years and almost 9,000 victories later, Shoemaker will ride for the last time Saturday at Santa Anita. Hebert, along with many others, wouldn't dare be anywhere else.

"Each season, he got better and better," Hebert said. "As an all-around rider, you just couldn't beat him. (Eddie) Arcaro might have been better with the whip and (Johnny) Longden might have been better on a speed horse, but put it all together and Shoe couldn't be topped. He was in a class by himself."

Hebert remembers how Shoemaker was cooperative not long after the most embarrassing moment of his career--misjudging the finish line aboard Gallant Man in the 1957 Kentucky Derby.

"He ducked out of the jock's room because he was hurrying to catch a plane to Texas," Hebert said. "Everbody in the press box wanted to know what had happened.

"I called the airport in Louisville and had Shoemaker paged. He took the call and said, 'I messed up.' He didn't offer any alibis or excuses. That's just the way he was."

Dr. Robert Kerlan

Besides treating them, Kerlan, a sports injury specialist, has gotten to know several prominent, world-class athletes and he doesn't hestiate to rank his diminutive friend at the top.

"I don't mind putting that label on Shoe," he said. "To be able to perform at a superior level and remain at that level for so long is remarkable. I doubt if anyone will have the longevity with the skills remaining for as long as he has.

"His record speaks for itself. He has the same friends he's always had and that's something I like very much about him. I'm a little suspicious of people who keep changing their circle of friends. I love to see him and the older riders when they get together. I love to watch him and Longden and Arcaro when they're together. They love and admire each other and it's marvelous to see."

For all of Shoemaker's accomplishments, Kerlan believes one is particularly noteworthy.

"On Shoe's way up, Jimmy Jordan rode him on several good horses," he said. "Later, when Jimmy got a little down on his luck, Shoe never forgot what he had done for him. If Jimmy wanted him to ride a horse, no matter what it was, Shoe would make himself available.

"To me, that's the cornerstone of why he's remained the same and why everybody likes him. He's dependable, fair and has a total knowledge of what a rider is supposed to do.

"He's become more devious in his practical jokes, but he's changed less than any guy I've ever seen in sports who's become a huge success and a national figure. He's changed about as little as one can change. I love him."

Harry Silbert

Shoemaker and agent Silbert, whose handshake relationship ended when the cigar-chewing Silbert died in 1986, didn't always agree on the horses the jockey would ride, but their mistakes were few. The better the jockey, the easier the agent's job, is not an automatic adage. During Shoemaker's heyday, he could have ridden virtually every contender in almost every race, and it was frequently Silbert's job to make the call.

One time, Silbert was trying to help a struggling trainer who was a friend, and he put Shoemaker on a 15-1 shot that would have been much longer without the premier jockey aboard. The horse finished last.

Two weeks later, Silbert signed up Shoemaker to ride the horse again. The horse ran last again. In a third race, even with Shoemaker, the horse went off at 50-1 and again didn't beat any other horses.

"Hey, Harry," Shoemaker said, laughing. "Is there something you know about that horse that I don't know?"

Silbert thought that Shoemaker's ride aboard J. O. Tobin, the time he beat Seattle Slew in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park in 1977, was one of the jockey's greatest.

"The drama was terrific," Silbert said. "You could never tell what J. O. Tobin would do, and Bill handled him beautifully, leading all the way, and not letting the Triple Crown champion catch up. I think that was the first time I ever saw Bill raise his hand in the air after a victory."

Dan Smith

Smith, Del Mar publicist and collaborator on a book with Shoemaker, has no trouble remembering the details of a certain 1957 race.

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