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BILL SHOEMAKER / 1931-2003

In Effortless Style, He Rode to Greatness

October 13, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

Bill Shoemaker, the Hall of Fame jockey who rode more than 8,800 winners, including four Kentucky Derby champions, in a career spanning five decades, died Sunday at his home in San Marino. He was 72.

Shoemaker, rendered a quadriplegic in a 1991 automobile accident, "died in his sleep of natural causes," said Paddy Gallagher, a trainer at Santa Anita Park who once worked as an assistant to the racing great.

"I talked with him a few days ago," said Marje Everett, former chief executive at Hollywood Park and one of Shoemaker's close friends. "He said there was an infection. He had a fever and said that they had put him on antibiotics. It didn't sound good. I'm just heartbroken."

In his prime, Bill Shoemaker was widely regarded as one of the best jockeys in the world. It was said that horses loved running for Shoemaker because he rode them with what the late Times sports columnist Jim Murray called "the effortless ease and grace of a guy born to do what he was doing."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Shoemaker survivors -- The obituary of jockey Bill Shoemaker in Monday's Section A failed to list some of his survivors. In addition to his daughter Amanda from his third marriage, Shoemaker is survived by another daughter, Sheryl Shoemaker Griffin, and two sons, John Shoemaker and Mitchell Shoemaker, from previous marriages. He is also survived by his mother, Ruby Shoemaker, and a brother, Lonnie Shoemaker.

The great jockey Eddie Arcaro once observed that Shoemaker "had the finest hands in the game. And when a jock has good hands, they can be more effective than a whip.

"Shoes 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."

Shoemaker was the first jockey to win 8,000 races and the first jockey to earn more than $100 million in his career. He was the first jockey to win a $1-million race, capturing the Arlington Million aboard John Henry in 1981.

He holds the record for Kentucky Derby rides with 26 and, in 1986, became the oldest jockey to win the Derby, when at the age of 54 he rode Ferdinand to victory.

He broke Johnny Longden's record for most career wins with 6,032 in 1970 and held the record for nearly 30 years, adding steadily to the total to finish his career with 8,833 wins. Laffit Pincay passed him in 1999 and retired in April with 9,530 victories.

Shoemaker, who was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1958, never rode a horse that swept the Triple Crown, but he won 11 Triple Crown races -- four Derbys, two Preaknesses and five Belmonts. Only Arcaro, with 17 Triple Crown wins, has more.

"Bill knew when a horse was doing his best or loafing," said the late Rex Ellsworth, the breeder and owner of Swaps, who in 1955 gave Shoemaker his first Derby win. "When a horse was doing his best, Shoe left him alone. When a horse loafed, Shoe would get after him. I never worried when Shoe rode one of my horses, because I knew he'd do a perfect job."

One of the exceptions was the 1957 Derby, in which Shoemaker misjudged the finish line, standing up briefly in the stirrups as Iron Liege beat his horse, Gallant Man, by a nose. The Churchill Downs stewards suspended Shoemaker for 15 days for careless riding, which prevented him from riding in the Preakness, the middle leg of the Triple Crown. Shoemaker returned five weeks after the Derby to win the Belmont Stakes, the Triple Crown finale, with Gallant Man.

William Lee Shoemaker was born Aug. 19, 1931, in an adobe shack in Fabens, Tex. His parents were B.B. and Ruby Shoemaker -- she was 17 -- and after the delivery a doctor told them that the baby, weighing one pound, 13 ounces, had little chance to survive. Shoemaker, according to one of his biographers, Barney Nagler, had been told that a story of how his grandmother, Maudie Harris, put him in a shoebox and used an open oven as an incubator, was apocryphal. But Harris, while in her 90s, told her grandson that when he was an infant she wrapped him in warm blanket and plopped him on a pillow that rested on the stove door.

By the time Shoemaker was 3, his parents had divorced. At 9, Shoemaker moved to El Monte, not far from Santa Anita, to live with his father, his younger brother and his father's second wife, who had four children. Shoemaker boxed and wrestled for teams at El Monte Union High School, where a classmate suggested that he was the right size to be a jockey. At 14, Shoemaker went to work at the Suzy Q Ranch in La Puente. He enjoyed working with thoroughbreds and, without his father's knowledge, quit school to work at the ranch full-time for $75 a month.

Two years later, Shoemaker went to Bay Meadows, a track in San Mateo, and landed a job as an exercise rider with trainer Hurst Philpot. Johnny Adams, a future Hall of Fame jockey and Philpot's stable rider, showed Shoemaker the ropes.

"The minute I walked into that ranch in La Puente, I knew that was what I wanted to do," Shoemaker told Joe Hirsch of the Daily Racing Form in a 1990 interview. "The horses looked so grand, and the more time I spent around them, the more I liked it. It was the same with riding. Most young riders have a dull spot when they get discouraged. I never had that. I started out with a bang and never stopped winning."

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