Derby Day Boy, a little-known horse in a highly forgettable race, carried 117 pounds, and the most important of them were the 98 belonging to the corpus of an aging jockey named William Shoemaker. Derby Day Boy was boxed in at the head of the stretch—so thoroughly sealed off on the rail, in fact, that a trailing jockey taunted Shoemaker, "Come on: let him run," knowing full well that Derby Day Boy would have no place to run but up the west ends of the two eastbound horses in front of him. Then a thin corridor of light opened up between the two lead horses, and Shoemaker yanked Derby Day Boy hard to the right and guided him straight for the opening, like a halfback going through the two hole. A few minutes later he rode his horse into the winner's circle and dismounted as a railbird tore up tickets and chirped at him: "The record's inevitable, so why take chances like that?"
"The record" was Johnny Longden's—6,032 winning rides atop the knobby vertebrae of racehorses. Last week Bill Shoemaker, racing's premier rider, steered Derby Day Boy and seven other horses to victory at the sunny little California track called Del Mar, and when all the arithmetic was finished he had equaled the record that many had thought would stand forever. At 39 and in his 22nd year of racing. Shoemaker will now, undoubtedly, pull steadily ahead of the retired Longden. If there was someone waiting in the wings to surpass Shoemaker, he was waiting very quietly. Shoemaker's nearest active competitor is Bill Hartack, with 3,995 wins, and behind him is Walter Blum, with 3,460. If Shoemaker rides another six or seven years, which would surprise no one, including himself, he will hang up his tack with something in the neighborhood of 7,500 wins, and that record should stand for decades, just as surely as you can say Babe Ruth.
Was Shoemaker excited? Well—no. "That's just not my style," the graying jockey explained. "I mean—I get excited inside, but I don't show it. To tell you the truth, I'm a little sorry in a way. That record's the most important thing in the world to Johnny Longden, so I have a little sad feeling about equaling it. The perfect thing would have been if I could have gone on winning races, hundreds and hundreds of races, but Johnny could somehow have held onto his record. That would have been beautiful." Coming from any number of other jockeys, the remark would have been rank and phony. Coming from Shoemaker, it was merely consistent with his attitude over two decades of racing. He came up as a deferential, shy, unexcitable stoic of 17, and he remains a deferential, shy, unexcitable stoic at 39. "That's the whole secret of his career," said a close friend as the record-equaling ride approached last week. "He doesn't push. He takes things one by one, as they come, an hour at a time, a race at a time."
"Bill excited?" said Del Mar Vice President Clement Hirsch. "Are you kidding? Bill's the iceman. He doesn't get excited, he doesn't get mad, he just wins races."
September 13, 1970
"Oh, he gets sore once in a while," says Shoemaker's lifelong agent, Harry Silbert, a Guys and Dolls character from Brooklyn who views life through dark glasses and cigar smoke and smacks you on the knee when he makes a point. "Everybody gets mad. If you don't get mad you ain't human, right? (Whack.) But he don't cuss nobody out. He keeps it to himself. He don't hold no grudge. The beauty part of it is, he's been riding with these other jocks for 21, 22 years. Now nine out of 10 guys like that, you'd find at least four or five guys hate him with a passion, right? (Crack.) Well, nobody hates Bill. Nobody. You can go all over the country and you won't find an enemy of Bill Shoemaker. The worst argument we ever had? Him and me? Well, Bill will say in a roughish voice, 'I'd rather not ride that horse, Harry,' and I'll say, 'O.K.,' and that's the worst argument we ever have. (Bang.) And that's about once a year. Oh, he's a mean one."
In 1949 Harry Silbert took Shoemaker's book, and at the time neither Silbert nor the rest of the horse-racing fraternity was particularly impressed by the silent 98-pound apprentice boy. Shoemaker was the product of a broken home, which sometimes turns a child inward, and his mouth was full of misshapen and maloccluded teeth, factors that tended to make him keep his mouth shut. When he won his first race on Shatter V, a Golden Gate track official tried to interview him, but a deep silence followed the first question: "How old are you?" Five months later Shoemaker bumped into the same official in the paddock and blurted out, "Eighteen."
If Shoemaker is somewhat quicker on the response these days, and less reluctant to open his mouth now that oral surgeons have effected massive repairs, he nevertheless seems to be happiest in his own company and his own counsels. His wife Babbs is highly gregarious, and the Shoemakers' summer beach house at Del Mar rings with the shouts of dozens of guests, famous and ordinary, who wander in and out at all hours. "That's the way we prefer it," Babbs says. "We live like that. We have open house all the time." But as the evenings wear on, one is likely to find Shoemaker, all 59½ inches of him, off to one side nursing a drink or totally invisible in the middle of a group of neighborhood children, with whom he has a mysterious and total rapport.
"He's like the Pied Piper," says Dan Smith of the Del Mar racing staff. "I was trying to get my 3-year-old son David to go into the water the other day, and he wouldn't think of it. Then Shoe lay down in the surf and said, 'Come on, David, swim out to me,' and the kid did it. I guess he looked at Bill and he said to himself, 'If that kid can do it, so can I.' "
The one place where William Shoemaker seems completely and totally at home is the track, where he functions as a sort of elder statesman, settler of disputes and all-round confidant of troubled jockeys. The role is odd, for Shoemaker has almost never been a troubled jockey himself. In his apprentice year of 1949 he was the leading jockey at Del Mar. He started fast and still hasn't slowed, but a jockey in a slump seems to depress Shoemaker vicariously. "He worries more about me than he does about himself," says Ray Bianco, a rider who broke his hand several months ago and hasn't won a race since. "He keeps trying to encourage me. He says, 'Don't worry, Ray, you're not doing anything wrong or doing anything different. You're just not getting stock that can win.' Maybe he's just bulling me along, trying to cheer me up, but he keeps me going, and I know eventually I'll get out of this slump if he keeps on helping me.'
Early in the Del Mar meeting, when he was still 30 or 40 races away from Longden's record, Shoemaker began watching and helping Ronald Mark, a 22-year-old apprentice, and Mark has since moved into the top 10 jockeys at the track. "He started telling me when I made mistakes," the ebullient young Mark said, "and naturally, when a Bill Shoemaker talks, you listen. Like the other day, I went through a tight hole on the inside, and later on he said to me, real quietlike, 'Don't do that, because that's an awful good way to get killed.' When I did it I knew it was wrong, but when Bill told me, I really knew it was wrong.
"He's taught me a lot of the trickier things, like how to trap somebody behind the speed horse. Maybe he taught me too well. The other day I was on a horse named Nitouche and Bill was on a horse named Captivated II, and I dropped him off behind a dying speed horse. I tried to keep him in there as long as I could, but when I took the lead at the ‚Öúths pole I was afraid he'd get loose, and he did. He hooked me at the eighth pole, and it was neck and neck the rest of the way. When we went across the finish line, I hollered, 'I think I got you, Bill,' and he gave me that little Chinaman smile of his and said, 'Don't be too sure about that.' When they posted a dead heat, Bill said to me, 'It looks like you put your mark on me, Mark.' "
If there is any diminution of Shoemaker's own skills atop half a ton of horse, it went unnoticed by those who cheered him on to his record this summer. When he came off a 13-month pause after breaking his right femur in a race at Santa Anita two years ago, everyone looked for the customary signs of staleness and fright, and found none. "I was a little stiff at first," Shoemaker recalls, "but it didn't take me long to get over that." He went three-for-three on his first day back, sneaking through a small opening on the rail to steer a horse named Racing Room to a track record performance at 6½ furlongs. But not long afterward a horse rolled on him in the paddock at Hollywood Park and damaged his pelvis and bladder. Once again Shoemaker repaired to the sidelines, and once again he was examined for signs of fear or rustiness when he returned. But his winning average—an astonishing .25 over his lifetime—has remained fairly constant.
"My agent told me I was sitting higher on the horse than before my injuries," Shoemaker says ruefully. "I said, 'Sure, but I'm a little stiffer than I was, Harry.' But that didn't last long. I'm sitting the same as ever now." The only carry-over from any of his racing injuries is a slight residual soreness from a vertebra he cracked in 1954. "Some days you'll see me kind of ease myself off the horse instead of jumping down," Shoemaker says. "That's when my back hurts me a little bit. Or maybe I'm just getting old." But no one would have pegged him for any of the problems of gerontology a few weeks ago when his horse reared up in the paddock and lost his balance and fell down while onlookers gasped and wondered if history was about to repeat itself.
Shoemaker went over backward with the horse, but somehow in midair he managed to whirl around the ribs and keep from getting pinned. As he jumped to his feet, another horse kicked out at him and missed him by a foot. After these near disasters, Shoemaker went out and rode in the race unperturbed, once again exhibiting the unbuggability that has characterized his career.
"Cool is the word for him," says Harry Silbert. "And a pro. What a pro! One day this year he won four races, and the next morning he was out working a horse at dawn. Sometimes before a meeting opens, like Santa Anita, he'll come out to the track for a week or two and work out himself, to make sure he's in perfect condition. Sure, other jocks do things like that. But wouldn't you expect Shoemaker to be taking it easier on himself as he gets older? But he doesn't, and that's why he's riding as good as he ever rode before."
"He's a paradox," says Eddie Read, assistant general manager at Del Mar. "He never seems to change. He's cool, calm, all guts. He'll do absolutely nothing to a horse if that's what's called for, or he'll send a horse through a suicidal hole if that's what's called for. Fire and ice, that's it. I can't see any change in his riding over the years. He has an uncanny ability for positioning himself in a race, especially in a distance race. He's the master of the whole situation, and yet he never seems to be doing anything up there. He doesn't scrub and rub around on the horse, like some of the jocks. He's like a little computer, sitting up there, knowing exactly when to do what, and moving the horse with little clucks and touches.
"Riding like that, Shoe doesn't take much out of a horse. The trainer gets the animal back in the same shape. It's not like a Hartack, or certain other jockeys I can think of. They'll win for you, but you might not be able to run the horse for two or three weeks because they take too much out of them. Maybe that's why Shoe was so successful with Swaps and other Rex Ellsworth horses, the two complementing each other. Ellsworth is tough on horses and Shoe is patient. If you had a combination of Ellsworth and Hartack you'd have to shoot the horse after each race, but never with Shoe."
If there is a change in the world's most successful jockey, it is only that he finds it more difficult to get up for the less important races. "It's not that I don't respect the everyday races, the cheap races," Shoemaker says in his usual deferential manner. "But those sore-legged claimers are harder to ride than the good horses.
"So I don't always get thrilled by the prospect of riding one. But the good races are still fun to ride. Any kind of a big race, a good field, nice horses—then it's fun. You're not only on a good horse, but you're surrounded by good horses and good riders, too. But in the cheap races the horses are bad, and a lot of times you have some inexperienced young riders that're coming up and don't know how to do the thing yet. That's how I got hurt so bad at Santa Anita. Some young jock in front of me ran his horse up where he shouldn't have been, and his horse clipped another horse's heels and they went down, and I was right in the middle and couldn't get away from them. Sometimes I think about that when I'm in a squeeze in one of these cheaper races. I don't know—maybe that's why I'm so free with the advice to the young jockeys around here. Maybe it's just self-defense."
Another jockey might be thinking about retirement, but the idea doesn't seem to appeal to Shoemaker. Certainly, he is financially secure. His mounts have won over $43 million, of which his own share has been $4.3 million, less Harry Silbert's cut of about $1 million. Business investments have paid off for Shoemaker, and although he lives comfortably, he does not throw money around. His personal white convertible is five years old, and when he is at a track like Del Mar, half a mile from the seaside, he slouches about in an old pair of Bermuda shorts instead of showing off the fancy wardrobe that hangs in the closets of his luxury apartment in Beverly Hills. There will be no benefit racing cards for Mr. and Mrs. William Shoemaker when they enter their dotage.
If Shoemaker's bank accounts seem to offer no special incentive for him to continue riding, neither does his racing record. He has done it all. Once he rode 485 winners in a single year and could have won 500 if he hadn't decided to take a vacation instead. He has led the nation's jockeys in winners five years, in money earned 10 years. He has won the Kentucky Derby three times and almost every major stake race at least once. He has raced nearly 25,000 miles sitting atop a straining, lurching horse surrounded by other straining, lurching horses for a distance equal to the circumference of the earth, an athletic feat almost without equal in sports history. His reputation is such that he single-handedly distorts the pari-mutuels. "He makes a $20 bettor a $50 bettor," says Harry Silbert. "He makes a $50 bettor a $100 bettor. They play him with confidence. He cuts prices just by climbing up on a horse. I figure down through the years he's knocked off a point, a point-and-a-half on the average of every horse he's rode. Nowadays, if a horse is a natural 2-to-1 shot, Bill'll make him 6-to-5."
So what remains as incentive? "I don't know," says Shoemaker, "but I'm not ready to quit. I used to want to go to England or France and ride there for a year, but now I'm not so sure about that. To spend that much time—I don't think I'd like it. I rode in the Arc de Triomphe once, and I had a chance to go back this year on a horse owned by Earl Scheib, but I didn't take it. It's too much of a hassle.
"I guess I'll just go on riding here. I still enjoy it. I have a lot of things to remember, some good things, some bad things, but I'd do it all again. Horses like Gallant Man, Swaps, Round Table, Damascus. I always admired the distance horses the best. Jocks? Arcaro's still No. 1 to me. All by himself, nobody near him. He had everything: the style, the moves, the head. After him you skip down quite a few notches, and you come to jockeys like Jackie Westrope, Johnny Gilbert, and, of course, that great pro, Johnny Longden. There was never anybody more competitive than Johnny.
"People ask me what were my best wins, and I'll tell you, they all kind of blend together. My first win, on Shafter V, I remember clearly. But after that I have to think, to separate them all in my mind. I think the one race that I got the most satisfaction out of is one everybody else has forgotten—the San Juan Capistrano on the grass at Santa Anita, back eight or nine years ago. I rode a horse called Olden Times, strictly a miler, and the race was 1¾ miles. Nobody thought Olden Times could go that far, but I put him on the lead and slowed the pace down, and he just loped along nice and pretty. He had enough left to win it and fool everybody, maybe including me. Those are the races you remember, true tests, good distance races, not those short sprints that tear up your horse. But then I also remember a few sour notes. The worst one was when I misjudged the finish line in the Derby. That was a big disappointment to me. I didn't think anything like that could happen to me, but there's a lot of ways to lose a horse race. They're inventing new ones every day. The trick is to get out there and enjoy yourself. And I still do. When a good race comes along, with good horses and the best jockeys, I'm as excited as I was when I started."
Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a more rewarding and exciting summer for a jockey. When he turned 39 on Aug. 19, Shoemaker received a congratulatory telegram—collect—from Jack Benny. Last week he attended a state dinner hosted by President Nixon for Mexican President Gustavo Diàz Ordaz. All summer he hobnobbed with movie stars at Del Mar and played basketball and tennis and golf with his crony, Composer Burt Bacharach. He frolicked and gamboled and conversed with the kids of the neighborhood, and he drank a few whiskeys with the hangers-on who infiltrated his patio nightly. Professionally, he was at the absolute top of his craft, and his Chinaman smile and customary unflappability seemed to confirm a certain satisfaction with the life that flowed around him in the balmy seaside air of Southern California. If he had a problem, it was a minor one, and probably he would not even have thought of it if Harry Silbert hadn't brought it up. As Silbert explained later, "See, this has been the happiest association of my life, me and Bill. When I first took him I felt like I was his father. He knew nothing, you know? I just took somebody who was nothing. To me, it's a great feeling that I made him what he is. He was 17 when I was 38. Now I'm 59 and he's 39, and I still feel like his father. That's why I'm worried about this record. See, he's got to break Longden's record by at least 80 wins. You get me? You don't? Well, Bill didn't get it either when I told him. The thing is, Johnny's a very competitive guy, and if Bill just breaks his record by five or six wins, John'll come back. Sure as hell, he'll get out the old silks and he'll sneak up to Canada and he'll win enough races to get the record back."
When Silbert passed this word along to Shoemaker, they both laughed. Then they did a double take. At last report, Shoemaker planned to win at least 80 more races before retiring.