Riding High : In 1954 at Del Mar, Shoemaker Made Any Horse the Favorite as He Rode a Record 94 Winners,With 11 in a Memorable Two Days
One night recently, George Taniguchi was watching a sports program on television.
“It was a show about sports records,” the former jockey and retired racing official said. “They were going over many of the records that might never fall. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, some track and field records.
“I kept waiting for something about Shoe, but it never came. How could you do a show about sports records and not mention Bill Shoemaker? All the winners he rode, and all those winners he rode that one summer at Del Mar. Nobody is ever going to touch those records.”
Bill Shoemaker, who will turn 60 Monday, rode 8,833 winners before he ended a 42-year riding career with his last mount at Santa Anita on Feb. 3, 1990. Laffit Pincay, who is second on the list with more than 7,500 winners, would need to average about 150 victories a year for nine years in order to break Shoemaker’s record. It is unlikely that Pincay will be riding in 2000, the year of his 54th birthday.
In the summer of 1954, as Shoemaker was turning 23, he rode 94 of those 8,833 winners during a seven-week season at Del Mar. Only Pincay has come close to that record, riding 86 winners here in 1976, then 76 in 1979. Since ’79, the Del Mar riding champion has had an average of 57 winners. Only one Del Mar jockey rode more than 70 winners before 1954--Shoemaker, with 74 in 1953--and only one jockey other than Pincay has been that successful since. Johnny Longden rode 73 winners in 1956.
“Shoemaker was a miracle rider in 1954,” Mort Lipton said. “He was out of this world. Del Mar was a speed track then, and Shoe would break horse after horse on the lead and they’d never catch him.” Lipton, now a steward at Del Mar, used to train horses. He saddled one of Shoemaker’s winners that summer 37 years ago.
Taniguchi was an apprentice jockey at Del Mar in 1954. He won with 15% of his mounts and had 32 victories. It took Shoemaker only 15 days to win more than 32 races.
Del Mar ran a 41-day season in 1954, and Shoemaker rode only 36 days because of out-of-town stakes assignments. Eight-race cards were the norm then; an extra race was added on the seven Saturdays, Labor Day and one other day.
Shoemaker averaged 2.6 winners a day for the days he rode. He rode in 234 races and won 40.1% of them. For the year, Shoemaker led the nation with 380 winners, averaging 30%. His career percentage was slightly under 22%. Anything over 15% is considered to be outstanding.
The co-stars with Shoemaker during his record season were Robert Hyatt (Red) McDaniel and Harry Silbert. The dapper McDaniel, a former jockey, dominated the trainers the way Shoemaker outdistanced the jockeys. McDaniel saddled 47 winners, breaking the record by 11. Trainer Gary Jones’ father, Farrell, is second to McDaniel in the Del Mar record book with 35 winners in 1963.
About eight months after his extraordinary Del Mar season ended, Red McDaniel gave Ralph Neves a leg up on a 5-year-old gelding at Golden Gate Fields, walked to the Turf Club parking lot, got in his Cadillac and drove to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, from which he jumped to his death. No one has ever been able to say why. Winning tickets on the horse Neves rode were found in McDaniel’s pockets.
Of Shoemaker’s 94 winners, 42 were on McDaniel’s horses. Four years before, when Shoemaker finished his apprenticeship, losing the weight advantage apprentices enjoy, McDaniel continued to employ him regularly. In fact, the first day Shoemaker rode as a journeyman, he won three times with horses from McDaniel’s barn.
Silbert died in 1986, until then the only agent Shoemaker ever had. A cigar-chomping New Yorker, Silbert came West in 1938 and began booking mounts for Shoemaker at Golden Gate Fields in 1949. “The land of milk and honey,” Silbert called California, and he referred to Shoemaker as “my little oil well.” In the summer of 1954, Silbert had so much confidence in McDaniel’s stock that he simply handed the trainer Shoemaker’s book of riding engagements. “Fill it in, Mac,” Silbert would say.
In 1954, Del Mar opened on July 27, a Monday, to a crowd of
9,700. Shoemaker finished third in the first race, then won No. 1 of his 94 in the second race, a three-length victory aboard Just My Speed, a 2-year-old maiden owned by John Hertz and trained by Noble Threewitt. Shoemaker won two more races that day, one of 14 triples he would have during the season. He won four races five times. He also had a five-winner day and on Sept. 4 became the first jockey to win six races in a day at Del Mar. Only Rudy Rosales and Pincay have done it since.
Shoemaker won at least one race on 35 of his 36 riding days. Friday the 13th couldn’t stop him in August. On his birthday, Aug. 19, he had four mounts and won with three of them. The stewards deprived him of what would have been a fourth winner on Aug. 3, disqualifying his horse from first to second for interference.
On Aug. 21, Shoemaker gave the other riders a chance. He went to Chicago to ride High Gun for King Ranch in the $115,250 American Derby at Arlington Park. The favorite, High Gun ran second to Errard King. At Del Mar, Longden and Milo Valenzuela won two races apiece, one of Longden’s victories coming on a horse Shoemaker earlier rode to victory. Bill Pearson won the San Diego Handicap with Stranglehold, a Shoemaker horse trained by McDaniel.
Back home the next racing day, Shoemaker had four victories and two seconds on seven mounts, none of the winners paying more than $5.80.
The dilemma all season for horseplayers was what to do with Shoemaker’s mounts. Only nine of his winners paid more than $10, and the high $2 win payoff was $24.30. A $2 flat win bet on his mounts for the meeting produced a profit of $81.
Bob Hebert remembers Shoemaker riding both ends of the daily double for a paltry return of $8. Hebert and Henry McLemore later wrote an article for The Saturday Evening Post that was titled, “They’re Afraid to Bet Against Willie.”
” . . . This quiet little Texan has been shattering the ego, the confidence and the bankrolls of everybody from the most cautious students of racing form to the wildest hunch players,” the story said.
In August, another jockey rode a first-time starter who ran eighth at 53-1. For no reason other than the rider change, the colt ran twice more under Shoemaker with the odds dropping to 6-1 and 5-2. The horse didn’t win those races, either.
Neves and Taniguchi remember the monotony of finishing second to Shoemaker so often. “The kid was in demand, and his agent had the pick of mounts,” Neves said.
Taniguchi said that the other jockey agents shadowed Silbert from barn to barn in the mornings, hoping to cadge mounts that wouldn’t go to Shoemaker. “Shoe’s horses were the logical choices in most of the races,” Taniguchi said. “You knew that you usually had to beat his horse to win the race.”
That season, 43% of the Del Mar favorites won, highest percentage in track history. Of the 144 favorites to win, 67 were ridden by Shoemaker. The national average for winning favorites is about 30%.
Shoemaker broke his record--74 winners the year before--on Sept. 1, the 32nd day of the meeting. In the first race, he rode winner No. 74, a 3-5 favorite. In the fifth race, Cotton Sampler, a 4-year-old gelding, gave him No. 75.
On Sept. 4, Saturday of Labor Day weekend, Shoemaker had mounts in eight of the nine races, and six would go off favored.
His first ride, in the second race, produced a third-place finish. In the third race, Shoemaker and a 3-5 favorite finished second after failing to catch Longden’s mount in the stretch.
That would be the last race Shoemaker was to lose all day. In the fourth, he was astride Sure Time, a McDaniel filly that had already won twice at the meeting. She won by a head at 2-1.
In the fifth, McDaniel ran Bhaiplay, a 6-year-old gelding, and Shoemaker got him home by a head. Bhaiplay paid $6.10, and McDaniel lost him on a claim for $3,500.
Sixth race: Shoemaker rode Sugar Cube, another McDaniel claimer with a victory at the meeting. They led all the way to win by a neck at 3-1.
Seventh race: Shoemaker brought Karim from off the pace to win by a half-length and pay $5.60.
Eighth race, the Del Mar Debutante: This time, Longden was riding the favorite, Madam Jet. Shoemaker had Fair Molly, who was 9-2. Madam Jet left the gate slowly in the six-furlong race, was last after a half-mile and got into trouble on the turn. Room finally opened up on the inside, but Longden elected to circle the field. Shoemaker and Fair Molly beat them by a half-length.
Ninth race: Shoemaker needed one more winner for six. He was riding Breezing Bebe. The 3-year-old gelding had won for Shoemaker on July 30, but when McDaniel brought him back two weeks later in the La Jolla Handicap, Silbert picked a horse with a better chance, and Breezing Bebe finished last.
Breezing Bebe was now a moderate favorite in a field of seven. Last after a half-mile, she began passing horses on the turn and by the head of the stretch had only two to beat. She won by a half-length. For the day, Shoemaker had six winners, a second and a third in eight tries.
Racing resumed on Labor Day. McDaniel, who won four races Saturday, saddled a 9-10 shot in the first race and he led wire to wire, giving Shoemaker his seventh consecutive winner.
The streak ended in the next race, along with any chance of breaking Albert Adams’ 1930 record of nine consecutive winners. But in the third race, Shoemaker won again. He skipped the fourth, then won the fifth with a gelding saddled by Buster Millerick. After sitting out the sixth, Shoemaker won the next two races for McDaniel, including the Del Mar Handicap with Stranglehold.
In the ninth race, the stage was set for another six-winner day. Shoemaker and McDaniel had the 9-5 favorite, but finished sixth.
Still, the two-day totals were overwhelming: 15 mounts, 11 winners (including two in stakes), one second and one third.
Prescott Sullivan, the San Francisco Examiner columnist who used to drive around in a jalopy that had piles of losing parimutuel tickets in its back seat, suggested that out of fairness to the bettors, tracks should pay Shoemaker $1,000 a day to stay home. Shortly after his two-day onslaught, Shoemaker left Del Mar, free of charge, and moved north to the State Fair in Sacramento. Trainer Reggie Cornell saddled Berseem for Shoemaker in the $15,000 Governor’s Handicap, which he won by four lengths--his third victory of the day.
Shoemaker didn’t return to Del Mar until Sept. 11, closing day. He had three more winners, the last being the Bill Finnegan-trained Blue Ruler in the Del Mar Futurity.
As a fledging trainer off to a promising start, Shoemaker saddled his first stakes winner at Del Mar, winning the Osunitas last year with Baldomero. The mare paid $20, more than all but one of Shoemaker’s 94 riding winners here in 1954.
Still paralyzed from injuries suffered in his automobile accident in April, Shoemaker remains in a hospital near Denver, undergoing rehabilitation. He has talked about visiting Del Mar before the season ends Sept. 11.
“I’ve seen him fall off a horse many times and never have a scratch,” retired jockey Neves said recently.
“I’m not having a very good year myself. I had a (second) heart attack not long ago. But as bad as I felt already, I felt even worse when I heard what happened to Shoe.”
Day by day with Bill Shoemaker at Del Mar in 1954:
Date M 1 2 3 July 27 5 3 1 1 July 28 7 3 2 0 July 29 6 1 0 1 July 30 7 2 1 1 July 31 7 3 0 2 Aug. 2 6 3 2 0 Aug. 3 8 3 2 2 Aug. 4 4 1 0 0 Aug. 5 6 3 1 0 Aug. 6 7 4 0 0 Aug. 7 8 1 2 2 Aug. 9 6 2 1 1 Aug. 10 7 3 3 0 Aug. 11 7 3 1 0 Aug. 12 7 2 0 2 Aug. 13 6 1 2 1 Aug. 14 5 1 1 0 Aug. 16 7 3 0 0 Aug. 17 6 2 0 2 Aug. 18 7 4 2 0 Aug. 19 4 3 0 0 Aug. 20 6 4 0 0 Aug. 21 Did Not Ride Aug. 23 7 4 2 0 Aug. 24 5 2 0 0 Aug. 25 6 0 2 1 Aug. 26 7 2 1 2 Aug. 27 7 4 1 0 Aug. 28 7 3 2 1 Aug. 30 6 2 0 2 Aug. 31 7 1 3 2 Sept. 1 7 3 1 0 Sept. 2 7 3 2 1 Sept. 3 6 1 1 1 Sept. 4 8 6 1 1 Sept. 6 7 5 0 0 Sept. 7 Did Not Ride Sept. 8 Did Not Ride Sept. 9 Did Not Ride Sept. 10 Did Not Ride Sept. 11 8 3 1 3 Totals 234 94 38 29