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BILL SHOEMAKER * 1931-2003 | Jim Murray

His Hands Made Light Work

October 13, 2003|Jim Murray

This column on Bill Shoemaker by the late Jim Murray first appeared in The Times on Feb. 1, 1990:

If I were a racehorse today, I think I would be in deep depression. I'd want to wear black bandages and tail ribbons and a black plume. I'd mope a lot and feel like putting crepe on the barn door.

Horses everywhere should be in mourning. They are losing their best friend.

I don't think Bill Shoemaker ever abused a dying 10-1 shot or even a fading favorite in his life. He never brought even a winner to the finish line in filets. Other riders were known as the Slasher, the Ripper. Eddie Arcaro came down the lane like a Cossack running down peasants.

Shoemaker rode a horse as if he owed him money. Horses loved Willie Shoemaker.

They ran out of sheer terror for other riders, a Manny Ycaza, a Willie Hartack. They were trying to get away from the whipping, the screaming, the kicking.

Shoemaker came to the wire as if he were on a carousel. Horses would do anything for him. He never had to browbeat one in his life. It didn't matter whether he was on Swaps or a $10,000 claimer, they gave their all for him.

He's the greatest horse rider in history. No Geronimo, Sundance Kid, pony express man, sergeant major in Custer's cavalry ever had the way with a horse Bill Shoemaker had. He won more races than any rider who ever lived and he did it with a velvet touch and graceful pace that made every race a ballet, not a charge.

Shoemaker rode a horse the way DiMaggio caught a fly ball, or Sinatra sang a ballad -- with the effortless ease and grace of a guy born to do what he was doing. Watching Shoe ride a horse was like watching Gene Kelly dance or Gauguin paint. It was art. You had the feeling he could win the Kentucky Derby on a Brahma bull.

No one knows the mysterious communication between horse and rider that makes a 1,200-pound headstrong brute do the one thing in this world he does not want to do -- run in a straight line as fast as he can for 2 1/2 minutes. Old-time horsemen agree it's in the hands. The horse can sense from the feel of the reins whether he's in the grip of a bully or a buddy.

For Shoemaker, they almost purred.

It was not that the Shoe couldn't control a willful, antisocial, temperamental runner with a bad attitude. It was just that he found a way to calm that horse down, focus him in and make him try his best. He was the boss up there and he was an athlete whose reflexes were as quick as the horse's, his nerve that of a high-wire walker, his instincts as sure as a timber wolf's.

Shoe could spot holes on the rail before they opened. It was ironic that he was the one who stood in the irons at the wrong pole and lost a Kentucky Derby because horsemen like the late Hy Schneider used to say that the great thing about Shoemaker was, he never made a mistake on the racetrack.

He was only 4 feet 11 inches tall, but he towered above his sport the way only the great ones do. There was Shoemaker -- and then there was everyone else. If you think Joe Montana overshadows football, Magic Johnson basketball, or Sugar Ray Leonard boxing, you should have seen Shoemaker in his prime. He was so good he never got on a longshot in his career. He could get on a burro in a Belmont and go off at 6-5 in his prime.

He got all the edge he would ever need in life when he came into it two months early. He weighed in at about two pounds and the family physician in the dusty little cotton town of Fabens, Texas, predicted that the blue, wizened little creature wouldn't last the night. That was on August 19, 58 years ago.

Shoemaker was scarcely a hand's length long when his grandmother, Mrs. Wallie Harris, put him in a shoe box behind the stove, which she lit even on that sultry summer night. He was to look like an infant till he was almost school age and, when his care and feeding were turned over to his Aunt Birdie Wilson, family legend has it, she tried everything from diet to shots to get little Willie to grow.

Fortunately, she never succeeded. Willie Shoemaker not only stayed a foot shorter than most of the rest of mankind -- at least that portion of it in Texas -- including his own brother, Lonnie, but he was put on a horse by his maternal grandfather almost as soon as he could walk.

"That boy'll never play football, so get him on a horse," he is reputed to have advised.

Putting Billy Lee Shoemaker on a horse was like putting Olivier on a stage, Hogan on a golf course, or Dempsey in a ring.

Farewell tours are all the rage now. The populace showers basketball players with motorcycles, antique clocks and Silver Shadow Rolls-Royces, and Bill Shoemaker has been honored every place they have a $2 window. He will be finally honored when he rides his last race at Santa Anita on Saturday [Feb. 3].

But the remarkable thing about Willie Shoemaker is not the 8,833 races he has won or the $123,398,882 his mounts have earned, it's that he's done it without any compromise of his integrity or popularity or the respect with which he is held.

A man without a jealous bone in his bodyhimself, he has aroused none in his contemporaries. Jockeys change agents almost as often as silks, but Shoemaker remained with one agent most of his life, until Harry Silbert died.

Racing, like boxing, often tends to tarnish those who make their living in it. No breath of scandal or innuendo has ever ranged alongside the name of Bill Shoemaker. There has hardly ever been a foul claim lodged against him in all the 42 years he has ridden and he has not been set down by the stewards in years.

Men, like horses, revere Willie Shoemaker.

It's not that he won Kentucky Derbies 31 years apart or that he rode for as long as he did, it's that he maintained the image of a decent, honest, kind human being who is almost the same quiet, almost shy and uncomplicated person he was when he got out of the shoe box. There are no airs to Willie Shoemaker, no side to him.

No wonder horses like him. Everyone else does too.

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