When the Horse Talks, Shoe Listens

You would think that one who retires from the jockey occupation after riding 40,000 times over 41 years has enough of horses.

They are stately creatures, he figures, but they attract flies, and their condos need raking, and their backers need explanations why they finished fourth instead of first.

Bill Shoemaker, who turns 59 in August, takes all this into consideration, and he promptly turns to training, accumulating 21 head, as we hardboots say, prepared to entertain at the Hollywood Park meeting that opens Wednesday.

"By this time," Shoe is asked, "haven't you had horses up to your neck?"

"When I quit riding," he answers, "I gave horses a lot of thought. I also gave thought to people. I decided that in my lifetime I have had better luck with horses."

"But people don't throw you coming out of the gate," he is reminded.

"They do worse," responds Bill. "They sell you junk bonds, oil stock, real estate and insurance. I tell you honestly it is easier to read a horse than a person. You don't hear a horse out loud, but he is always talking to you. And it is rare a horse will tell you something he doesn't mean."

This, of course, conflicts with the oldest of race track stories in which the horse winks at his owner in the paddock and assures him, "I'm ready, boss."

And he finishes in the toilet.

"But the more I thought about horses," Shoemaker continues, "the more I decided I wanted to be around them. They tell you things that tickle the hell out of you."

Charlie Whittingham, most venerable of horse coaches, takes an oath that Ferdinand, his Kentucky Derby winner, talked to him one day at Del Mar.

The son of Nijinsky, very high society in Europe, Ferdinand, like his father, figured logically as a bullet on grass.

"I was working him on grass, trying to convert him from dirt," recalls Charlie, "and he kept lifting his head. When a horse lifts his head, he is telling you he dislikes something, and what he was telling me was that grass is for sheep."

The rest of us, of course, couldn't hear this, but then we couldn't understand the elephant and the monkey when they talked to Tarzan, either.

Horses, like people, tend to be neurotic, developing phobias and anxieties. But as a general rule, according to Whittingham, troubles besetting people are more imagined.

When, for example, Ferdinand lifts his head running on grass, that problem isn't illusory. He can't handle the footing, and there is no need for Charlie to ask the horse to see a therapist three times a week.

In his pursuit as trainer, Shoemaker rises each morning at 4:30, reporting to the track at 5:15 to shepherd his flock. He is expecting to add maybe eight more runners in the immediate future.

Retired from riding since Feb. 3, Shoemaker, who still weighs 98 pounds, works some of his horses, mainly to understand the quality of creature he is training.

"I have 13 2-year-olds," he says. "By getting on them in the morning, I develop a better understanding of what can be expected when they go to the races."

In his barn, Shoe employs five grooms, four hot walkers, two exercise riders and an assistant trainer, meaning that all of a sudden, as an American businessman, he must occupy himself with payrolls, workman's comp, social security and the like.

The next thing you know, he is going to be voting Republican.

"What will be your policy on picking jockeys?" Shoemaker is asked.

"Among the top 10 jocks in California," he says, "you have about a standoff. By that I mean any can win with the right horse. My aim will be to land one of those top 10 for what I'm sending to the post."

"What if their agents turn you down?"

"That's possible," he answers. "In some cases, I'll have to do a selling job. If I have a horse I like, I'll invite the jock to work him in the morning, proving to him we have something that has a chance."

It cost Bill $150 to obtain a trainer's license. He also had to undergo a written and oral test. Happily, for those seeking to become trainers, the test is mostly oral. Not many on the backstretch earned their MBA at Harvard.

Academically, Shoe bowed a tendon in the 11th grade, a mishap not important to one who can hear a horse talk.

The trouble with guys who bet is they talk to horses but don't listen. The field turns into the stretch, and the player yells, "Move up, ya bum!"

But he pays no attention when the horse lifts his head, which is telling him to tear up his ticket.

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