In Effortless Style, He Rode to Greatness

Times Staff Writer

Bill Shoemaker, the Hall of Fame jockey who rode more than 8,800 winners, including four Kentucky Derby champions, in a career spanning five decades, died Sunday at his home in San Marino. He was 72.

Shoemaker, rendered a quadriplegic in a 1991 automobile accident, “died in his sleep of natural causes,” said Paddy Gallagher, a trainer at Santa Anita Park who once worked as an assistant to the racing great.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 15, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Shoemaker survivors -- The obituary of jockey Bill Shoemaker in Monday’s Section A failed to list some of his survivors. In addition to his daughter Amanda from his third marriage, Shoemaker is survived by another daughter, Sheryl Shoemaker Griffin, and two sons, John Shoemaker and Mitchell Shoemaker, from previous marriages. He is also survived by his mother, Ruby Shoemaker, and a brother, Lonnie Shoemaker.

“I talked with him a few days ago,” said Marje Everett, former chief executive at Hollywood Park and one of Shoemaker’s close friends. “He said there was an infection. He had a fever and said that they had put him on antibiotics. It didn’t sound good. I’m just heartbroken.”


In his prime, Bill Shoemaker was widely regarded as one of the best jockeys in the world. It was said that horses loved running for Shoemaker because he rode them with what the late Times sports columnist Jim Murray called “the effortless ease and grace of a guy born to do what he was doing.”

The great jockey Eddie Arcaro once observed that Shoemaker “had the finest hands in the game. And when a jock has good hands, they can be more effective than a whip.

“Shoes had great rapport with horses. He had great balance. Horses would run for him, and I’ve always wanted to know why. I always thought that you had to make horses run. But not Shoemaker. He got them to run without pushing them.”

Shoemaker was the first jockey to win 8,000 races and the first jockey to earn more than $100 million in his career. He was the first jockey to win a $1-million race, capturing the Arlington Million aboard John Henry in 1981.

He holds the record for Kentucky Derby rides with 26 and, in 1986, became the oldest jockey to win the Derby, when at the age of 54 he rode Ferdinand to victory.

He broke Johnny Longden’s record for most career wins with 6,032 in 1970 and held the record for nearly 30 years, adding steadily to the total to finish his career with 8,833 wins. Laffit Pincay passed him in 1999 and retired in April with 9,530 victories.


Shoemaker, who was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1958, never rode a horse that swept the Triple Crown, but he won 11 Triple Crown races -- four Derbys, two Preaknesses and five Belmonts. Only Arcaro, with 17 Triple Crown wins, has more.

“Bill knew when a horse was doing his best or loafing,” said the late Rex Ellsworth, the breeder and owner of Swaps, who in 1955 gave Shoemaker his first Derby win. “When a horse was doing his best, Shoe left him alone. When a horse loafed, Shoe would get after him. I never worried when Shoe rode one of my horses, because I knew he’d do a perfect job.”

One of the exceptions was the 1957 Derby, in which Shoemaker misjudged the finish line, standing up briefly in the stirrups as Iron Liege beat his horse, Gallant Man, by a nose. The Churchill Downs stewards suspended Shoemaker for 15 days for careless riding, which prevented him from riding in the Preakness, the middle leg of the Triple Crown. Shoemaker returned five weeks after the Derby to win the Belmont Stakes, the Triple Crown finale, with Gallant Man.

William Lee Shoemaker was born Aug. 19, 1931, in an adobe shack in Fabens, Tex. His parents were B.B. and Ruby Shoemaker -- she was 17 -- and after the delivery a doctor told them that the baby, weighing one pound, 13 ounces, had little chance to survive. Shoemaker, according to one of his biographers, Barney Nagler, had been told that a story of how his grandmother, Maudie Harris, put him in a shoebox and used an open oven as an incubator, was apocryphal. But Harris, while in her 90s, told her grandson that when he was an infant she wrapped him in warm blanket and plopped him on a pillow that rested on the stove door.

By the time Shoemaker was 3, his parents had divorced. At 9, Shoemaker moved to El Monte, not far from Santa Anita, to live with his father, his younger brother and his father’s second wife, who had four children. Shoemaker boxed and wrestled for teams at El Monte Union High School, where a classmate suggested that he was the right size to be a jockey. At 14, Shoemaker went to work at the Suzy Q Ranch in La Puente. He enjoyed working with thoroughbreds and, without his father’s knowledge, quit school to work at the ranch full-time for $75 a month.

Two years later, Shoemaker went to Bay Meadows, a track in San Mateo, and landed a job as an exercise rider with trainer Hurst Philpot. Johnny Adams, a future Hall of Fame jockey and Philpot’s stable rider, showed Shoemaker the ropes.


“The minute I walked into that ranch in La Puente, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” Shoemaker told Joe Hirsch of the Daily Racing Form in a 1990 interview. “The horses looked so grand, and the more time I spent around them, the more I liked it. It was the same with riding. Most young riders have a dull spot when they get discouraged. I never had that. I started out with a bang and never stopped winning.”

The agent who booked Shoemaker’s mounts for most of his 40,350-race career was Harry Silbert, a cigar-chomping former New Yorker who was with him from the start. In 1949, at Santa Anita, the trainer George Reeves pointed to Shoemaker one morning and said to Silbert: “See that boy. He’s going to be a good one. You’ve got his book when I start him up at Golden Gate Fields.”

It was at Golden Gate that Shoemaker, with his third mount, the 3-year-old filly Shafter V, won his first race. The winner’s purse was less than $1,500 and Shoemaker’s share was about $120, but he and Silbert were off and running. When he retired at 58, Shoemaker’s mounts had earned more than $123 million. “Shoe and me,” Silbert once said, as he flicked a few ashes, “have turned California into the land of milk and honey.”

There was that rare time, however, when Shoemaker and Silbert weren’t on the same page. In 1959, Shoemaker had promised Elliott Burch, the trainer of Sword Dancer, that he’d ride his colt in the Derby. Unknowingly, Silbert had told another trainer, Frank Childs, that Shoemaker was available to ride his horse.

“OK,” Shoemaker said to Silbert, “if you gave your word, that’s the way it’ll be. But I’m telling you, Sword Dancer is going to win the Derby.” The Childs-trained Tomy Lee, with Shoemaker up, beat Sword Dancer and jockey Bill Boland by a nose.Shoemaker, whose career was interrupted several times by injuries, was severely tested in 1968 and ’69. In January of 1968, at Santa Anita, his mount fell on him, breaking a thighbone. Robert Kerlan, Shoemaker’s doctor and close friend, needed a metal pin to repair the injury, finally finding one small enough in the children’s ward of a hospital. After the surgery, Shoemaker didn’t ride for 13 months. After returning to racing, he won his first two races, but in April 1969, just a few days before he was to ride Arts And Letters in the Derby, he was tossed and crushed by an unruly horse before a race at Hollywood Park. He suffered a broken pelvis, a ruptured bladder and was temporarily paralyzed in his left leg, unable to ride for four months.

Despite all that, he came back and raced effectively for 20 years.

The secret of his longevity and success was something that caused considerable debate among experts.


When Shoemaker retired in 1990, Bob Hebert, a longtime racing writer for The Times who had watched Shoemaker ride as an apprentice, observed: “Each season, he got better and better. As an all around rider, you just couldn’t beat him. Arcaro might have been better with the whip and Longden might have been better with a speed horse, but put it all together and Shoe couldn’t be topped. He was in a class by himself.”Longden, who died earlier this year at the age of 96, once said: “I always envied Shoe for his great disposition. He had judge of pace, perfect hands and a good seat, but I honestly believe that his even disposition was his greatest asset. You never saw him blow a race because he lost his temper.”

Many in the racing industry thought that the 54-year-old Shoemaker was over the hill in 1986, but Charlie Whittingham, the veteran trainer, didn’t waver as he brought Ferdinand, a 17-1 shot, to the Derby. Ferdinand, breaking from an inside post, was crowded by horses from the outside and almost thrown over the fence in a mad dash to the first turn. Shoemaker withstood the pressure, and coming out of the final turn he squeezed Ferdinand through a narrow hole as they went on to win by more than two lengths. He had become the oldest jockey ever to capture the Derby, the victory coming 21 years after his previous win, with Lucky Debonair.

For years, Shoemaker would say that Swaps was the best horse he ever rode, but he revised that opinion after he was introduced to a gunmetal-gray colt in the summer of 1979. Spectacular Bid had won the Derby and Preakness, then been beaten in the Belmont after a questionable ride by Ronnie Franklin. The horse’s owner, Harry Meyerhoff, jumped at the chance to hire Shoemaker, who won a race with Spectacular Bid, finished second in another, then reeled off 10 straight wins as the horse ended his career. In 1980, en route to the horse-of-the-year title, Spectacular Bid gave Shoemaker his ninth of 11 wins in the Santa Anita Handicap.

By 1990, Shoemaker envisioned a training career. There was a national farewell tour of many racetracks, which ended with his final race at Santa Anita. Shoemaker finished fourth with Patchy Groundfog in the Legend’s Last Ride Handicap, and the crowd of 64,573 cheered him away, at the same time throwing a few boos at Eddie Delahoussaye, who rode Exemplary Leader to victory.Shoemaker took off his size 1 1/2 boots for the last time, obtained his trainer’s license and began to form his own racing stable.

“He was going to be a natural as a trainer,” said Brian Mayberry, also a trainer. “He was going to have a built-in advantage, being able to get on his horses in the mornings and learning first-hand what made them tick.”

Shoemaker’s first training winner came in June of 1990 at Hollywood Park. His first stakes winner came nine weeks later at Del Mar. But in April of 1991, after playing a round of golf, he was en route to joining friends for dinner when his Ford Bronco careened off the road and rolled over.


Shoemaker’s blood-alcohol level was in excess of the legal limit. Paralyzed from the neck down, he received a settlement from the Ford Motor Co. -- estimated at $2.5 million -- but also filed a lawsuit against the state of California, a hospital and the doctors who treated him the night of the accident. The suit was dropped in 1997.

Following his rehabilitation, Shoemaker had resumed training at the end of 1991, but the physical demands of the job were too much and he retired in 1997.

The accident took away Shoemaker’s biggest edge as a trainer, the ability to get on the horses he trained.

“On and off the track, he’s been the most exemplary person I’ve ever known,” Everett told the Times on Sunday.

Shoemaker was married and divorced three times. His survivors include a daughter Amanda from his third marriage, and a brother Lonnie.

Memorial arrangements were pending.