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Horse Racing Loses a Legend and Friend

Shoemaker, one of the greatest jockeys, is remembered not only for contribution to sport but also for sense of fun he brought off racetrack.

October 13, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

The story has come out in drips and drabs over the years, probably with some exaggeration, but finally, not long ago, Bill Shoemaker elaborated on how he had worked his Kentucky Derby horse in a tuxedo.

"I don't know if you could really call it a tuxedo," Shoemaker said. "I did take off the dress coat and the cummerbund, you know."

This was April 27, 1965, four days before the Derby. Shoemaker already had won the race twice, with Swaps and Tomy Lee, and now was going for a third win with Lucky Debonair. There had been a dinner party that night, but the whoopee didn't stop with that, and by 4:30 a.m. it was getting close to the time Lucky Debonair was supposed to have a seven-furlong workout, his final heavy-duty exercise for the Derby.

Shoemaker wouldn't identify the friend who said, "Why don't we just go straight to Churchill [Downs]?" Alex Harthill, the crack veterinarian and longtime Shoemaker crony, always has been the No. 1 suspect, but Shoemaker never said and Harthill has kept his secrecy vow as well.

Going on to 5 o'clock, Shoemaker and his buddy arrived at trainer Frank Catrone's barn, looking for Lucky Debonair. Shoemaker left his frilly white shirt, suspenders, black pants and patent-leather shoes on, climbed aboard the colt and brought him back after doing seven furlongs in 1:25 1/5. There were few witnesses.

"I remember that it was really cold," said Shoemaker. "And it was still very dark. Hell, you couldn't see from here to there."

And by the way, on May 1, Shoemaker left the tuxedo at the hotel as he and Lucky Debonair beat Dapper Dan by a neck.

The Lucky Debonair caper was typical of the imp in Shoemaker, who died on Sunday at 72 at his home in San Marino. He was as small as a child and practiced good-natured mischief as though he had never left short pants.

Even the wheelchair, which transported him after he was paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1991, didn't completely slow him down. It was a puff-controlled chair, and your feet were fair game if he was close to you in a room.

Bob Kerlan, his doctor and good friend, was a frequent target. "You never knew," Kerlan once said, "what Shoe was going to hit you with next."

More than once, as Kerlan sat in the jockeys' room, playing cards with some of the riders, Shoemaker would pour part of a ketchup bottle into one of the doctor's sport-coat pockets. He was so clever that Kerlan wouldn't notice the inconvenience until much later.

Sandy Hawley, a Hall of Fame rider like Shoemaker, befriended Shoemaker on a flight from Toronto to Los Angeles, and was still done in. Shoemaker, having just left Woodbine where he rode in a stake, attempted to board the plane with a duffel bag that had his whip attached. The airline was going to send Shoemaker back to check-in with this questionable gear, but Hawley, a well-known Canadian native, was able to intervene and assure the crew that Shoemaker was no threat.

During the flight, Hawley dozed off. He awoke near LAX with whipped cream from dessert planted on his forehead.

Shoemaker was famous for throwing quips at fellow riders in the midst of races. As he sailed past a jockey with a tiring horse one day, he yelled out: "Got a tee time at 8:45 in the morning. Wanna come?"

In the 1962 Santa Anita Handicap, however, the Shoe was on the other foot. Physician, Olden Times and Prove It were a three-horse entry, ridden respectively by Don Pierce, Alex Maeze and Shoemaker.

It was not uncommon at the time for riders with coupled entries to "save," which meant sharing purse money they might earn.

Shoemaker and Maeze liked their horses, but they didn't think Pierce's horse had much of a chance and excluded him from the bargain.

On the last turn, Physician and Pierce went by Prove It and Shoemaker as if they were standing still.

"You're in!" Shoemaker yelled to Pierce as Physician set off for the finish line.

Pierce yelled back an obscenity. The two good friends laughed about that one for years. Wonder if Kerlan's ketchup ever found its way into Pierce's pocket instead?


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Leading Jockeys


*--* Laffit Pincay Jr. 9,530 BILL SHOEMAKER 8,833 Pat Day 8,554 Russell Baze 8,422 David Gall 7,396 Chris McCarron 7,141 Angel Cordero Jr. 7,057 Jorge Velasquez 6,795 Sandy Hawley 6,449 Larry Snyder 6,388




Some of Bill Shoemaker's statistics and accomplishments in his 42 years as a jockey:


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