Bob Benoit and his wife, Calvine, went to the races at Del Mar on Labor Day weekend 50 years ago.
"We tried to beat [Bill] Shoemaker every race," said Benoit, a former Hollywood Park executive who's now a publicist for the sport. "He was 3 to 5 in every race he rode, so you had to do something. But he kept winning race after race. It got costly."
The summer of 1954 was expensive for anybody who dared bet against Shoemaker at Del Mar. That Labor Day weekend -- Saturday and Monday; Sunday racing was yet to be introduced in California -- Shoemaker rode in 15 races and won 11. He won with the last six horses he rode on Saturday, Sept. 4, and rode the first-race winner on Monday, before his streak of seven in a row was stopped. Then he was off to ride elsewhere, giving his fellow riders a chance, and didn't return to Del Mar until closing day, Sept. 11. He rode three winners that day -- one of them Blue Ruler in the Del Mar Futurity -- for a meet total of 94 wins.
Shoemaker's 1954 mastery of Del Mar is one of racing's more indestructible records, right up there with trainer Woody Stephens' five consecutive Belmont wins, trainer Wayne Lukas' six consecutive victories in Triple Crown races and jockey Kent Desormeaux's 598 wins in 1989.
"It seemed like Shoe was winning all the races all the time," said Alex Maese, one of the jockeys futilely trying to beat Shoemaker at Del Mar 50 years ago.
Maese, retired since 1981, is summering at Del Mar, where Shoemaker, who died last October, also trained horses and occasionally came back to visit after he left racing in 1997.
"We miss him down here," Maese said. "As far as I'm concerned, there was never another rider like him. Nobody close."
The former record for wins at Del Mar had been 74, set by Shoemaker in 1953. Only two jockeys -- Johnny Longden and Laffit Pincay -- have topped 70 since Shoemaker's 94 in '54. Longden won 73 in 1956. Pincay won 76 in 1979 and three years earlier won 86, which still ranks second on the Del Mar list.
In the last 10 years, jockeys have won titles at Del Mar's seven-week meet with totals ranging from 36 to 52 wins. This year's champion, who will be either Tyler Baze or Corey Nakatani, probably will fall short of 60 wins.
Del Mar's 1954 season ran 41 days, but Shoemaker, who turned 23 late in the meet, was in demand as a national rider and missed five days because he was out of town. By the end of the year, Shoemaker had 380 wins, which although 105 fewer than his then-record total of 485 in 1953, was still good enough to lead the country.
Sharing the marquee at Del Mar in 1954 was the dapper Robert Hyatt "Red" McDaniel, a savvy jockey-turned-trainer who won a record 47 races, 42 of them with Shoemaker in the saddle. McDaniel's record still stands. The closest anybody has come was Farrell Jones with 35 wins in 1963.
"Shoemaker and McDaniel were unbeatable," said Ray York, who won the 1954 Kentucky Derby with Determine and also rode against Shoemaker at Del Mar.
Pete Pedersen, a veteran California steward, and Bill Harmatz, another riding contemporary of Shoemaker, recalled how McDaniel turned the claiming game upside down. McDaniel would buy a horse out of a race and immediately run him back, before a rule change required that a claimed horse had to run for a higher claiming price the next time. One day, Pedersen recalled, McDaniel claimed four or five horses out of the same race. Now the California limit on claims is two a race.
The McDaniel outfit won 211 races in 1954, leading the country for the fifth consecutive year, but in May 1955, about eight months after the trainer and Shoemaker conquered Del Mar, the 44-year-old McDaniel saddled a winning horse at Golden Gate Fields, drove his Cadillac to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and leaped to his death. McDaniel's colleagues were never able to fathom what prompted the suicide.
Besides McDaniel, there was another factor in the success of Shoemaker at Del Mar: Harry Silbert, a cigar-chewing New Yorker who had booked mounts for Shoemaker since the jockey won his first race at Golden Gate in 1949. Silbert knew he held the best hand, and he played it aggressively.
"Harry was the best, but he was also ruthless," said Harmatz, who quit riding in 1973. "He'd take [Shoemaker] off his mother's horse if he knew he could win with another horse."
One trainer Silbert didn't cross was McDaniel. At Del Mar today, racing insiders still tell the story of how Silbert would show up at McDaniel's barn, hand him the condition book of races and say, "Fill it in, Mac."
Still, what worked for Shoemaker, Silbert and McDaniel busted many bettors, who, like Bob and Calvine Benoit, couldn't accept returns of only nickels and dimes on the stock that Shoemaker rode. One day, Shoemaker won both ends of a daily double and the payoff for a $2 bet was a measly $8. Shoemaker rode in 234 races -- his win rate was 40.1% -- and a $2 flat win bet on all of them would have resulted in a profit of only $81.