The largest Handicap Day crowd in 28 years (68,474) squeezed into Santa Anita Park last Sunday afternoon, supposedly to watch an excellent field of 15 run for a purse of $255,900. But the factor that no one could measure in the attendance was how many fans had been drawn by a 4'11" jockey's quest for his 7,000th winner.
Willie Shoemaker has tucked close to $6 million in his saddlebags and has the highest winning percentage (24) of any name jockey. While he fell two winners short last weekend, he is odds-on to reach his goal when racing resumes at the Arcadia, Calif. course this Wednesday. It will be years, if ever, before another rider gets within striking distance of Shoemaker's record. His closest competitor among active jockeys—Bill Hartack, who is 44 and riding in Hong Kong—is some 2,600 wins back and aging fast.
Jockeys, more than others, grasp the significance of Shoemaker's feat. Johnny Sellers was one of those at Santa Anita marveling at Shoe's endurance. "Earlier this week," Sellers said, "I was taking a shower and began figuring how long it would take him to reach 10,000. If he rode 200 winners a year, it would take 15 more years." Shoemaker would be 59, the same age at which John Longden, who is closest to him in victories—6,026—retired. "I burst out laughing at the thought," Sellers said, "because I was at Arlington Park the day Shoe got his 3,500th. He walked in from the winner's circle and threw his whip on a bench. The other jockeys were watching him. He stretched and said, 'I hope the next 3,500 come as easy as the first 3,500.' Everyone chuckled. The notion of 7,000 wins was unbelievable."
Shoe's skill and strength lie in his hands, which are not particularly big and, in fact, appear strangely soft. Yet it is through them that he communicates with horses.
March 15, 1976
He is also, according to his competitors, a pretty good talker during a race despite his nickname, Silent Shoe. One day in Chicago, Jockey L.C. Cook, who is known for his handling of front-runners, was on the lead, working hard to keep his mount going. The horse had been five lengths in front, but suddenly Shoemaker was alongside. "Hey, Cookie," he hollered, "you're working awfully hard at that. This is the way it's supposed to be done." Shoemaker then set his horse down and drew away.
And Sellers remembers a mid-race conversation he had with Shoe: "I was on a longshot and the horse Bill was riding looked like a cinch I knew his horse had to be on the lead because her best races were run that way. Halfway through the race I noticed Shoe next to me and I was laying about eighth. The leaders were a long way off. 'John,' he said, I don't know what the hell I'm doing here. I'm supposed to be in front. The owners must be pulling their hair out.' And then he took off. He looped the field and won by six lengths. The difference between Bill Shoemaker and other riders is in his hands and patience."
To strangers, Shoemaker may seem a small, cold pile of impressive statistics. When he first began winning at Golden Gate Fields in April 1949 he was 17, and just one of 168 apprentices to break their maiden that year. The class Shoemaker graduated with was excellent, including Bill Boland, Sam Boulmetis, Joe Culmone and Ray York. Boulmetis, Culmone and York each rode more than 2,500 winners. Boland is remembered as one of only two apprentices ever to win a Kentucky Derby.
In those days Shoemaker attracted little attention. A youngster named Glen Lasswell was considered the best young rider on the Coast. Reporters who bothered to speak to Shoemaker in his first year found him uncommunicative. He was even more reticent than other young jockeys and they are not a talkative breed, silence having been pounded into them along the backstretch, where a bit of information given to the wrong person can be costly. But Shoemaker was closemouthed for other reasons.
Born prematurely in a farmhouse in Fabens, Texas in 1931, he weighed in at 2½ pounds. "He's going to die," the doctor told the Shoemakers. "We'll make the arrangements in the morning." Instead, his grandmother picked the boy up and put him in a shoe box. She lit the kitchen oven and put baby and box inside, leaving the oven door ajar for air. The tot survived. Shoemaker never graduated from high school but did make the boxing team at 90 pounds and often beat youngsters 10 pounds heavier than himself. "I still have the set of gold gloves I won," he says. "They remind me of times when things weren't all good in my life."
When Shoemaker came to the track he said little because his teeth were in terrible shape and his jaw was deformed. He was too embarrassed to talk. "A lot of times I should have said something, but I couldn't bring myself to do it," he explains. "I didn't like the nickname Silent Shoe, but I wasn't going to tell anyone why I wouldn't talk."
Shoemaker's first victory was on Shafter V., a horse that paid a big price ($21), in part because nobody knew who Bill Shoemaker was. The victory came in the third of his 29,189 races. In order to get Shoemaker the ride, Trainer George Reeves had to appear before the stewards to explain why he was naming an apprentice as the jockey instead of a veteran, such as the one who had handled the horse and won with him in his previous outing. "I want to use the boy," Reeves told the stewards, "because he has worked like hell for me exercising horses and he deserves the chance. He has a touch with horses that few have." Shoemaker won by 2½ lengths.
Bud Lyon of the Racing Form wrote the chart of the Shafter V. race. "The first thing I remember about Bill," Lyon recalled last week, "was his size." Shoemaker could make 100 pounds then. If necessary, he could ride at 102 today.
Shoemaker's next winner was also trained by Reeves, and this time the tote board lit up at $45. A week later he rode Shafter V. back and was beaten by a head. Lyon's remarks in the chart of this race are interesting: "Shafter V. was prominent early, saved ground and finished gamely under weak handling." It is the first knock recorded against Shoemaker. But not the last. What the sports world remembers best about him is his losing ride on Gallant Man in the 1957 Kentucky Derby when he misjudged the finish line.
Shoemaker's second year as a jockey was spectacular. He and Culmone fought for the national riding championship and ended the season on Dec. 31 tied with 388 winners. The next year Shoe led the nation in money won ($1.3 million), getting most of it the hard way, with just six stakes winners compared to 21 for Ted Atkinson, 21 for Eric Guerin and 18 for Eddie Arcaro.
Until Shoemaker came along, Arcaro was the finest stakes rider this country had ever known. When Arcaro quit in 1962 he had 554 stakes victories, but Shoemaker went past that record as if it were painted on a post. At the end of last week he had finished first in 661 stakes and 111 of those wins came in races of $100,000 or more.
Last Thursday Trainer Warren Stute stood in his barn at Santa Anita and described the first of those major victories. "I had Great Circle," Stute said. "Ralph Neves was supposed to ride the horse in the 1951 Santa Anita Maturity but Neves wouldn't make a firm commitment. Shoe had ridden the colt in a prep race and had lost because on the backstretch he saw another rider falling and reached over and snatched the boy up. When Shoe came back to unsaddle, he told me, 'Your horse should have won. He will next time out. I would like the chance to ride him back if it is possible.' Bill never said what he had done on the backstretch but I had seen it. He had an excuse but wouldn't use it. I put Shoe up on Great Circle in the Maturity. He rode a fine race and won $144,325 for us. All he said after the race was, 'Thank you.' "
Shoemaker remembers that Maturity vividly and recently talked about it for the first time: "In that race I did something I'd never done before and never did again. When I got in front in the stretch and knew I had it won, I went to pieces. I kept riding and went through the motions, but my mind was on the success of it all—that such a big thing could happen to me. I calmed myself down on the backstretch and got rid of the tears. When I got to the winner's circle, I guess I was Silent Shoe again."
For most riders it is 80 steps from the jockeys' room at Santa Anita to the walking ring where they are thrown up on their mounts, but it takes Shoemaker 100 steps to get there. As he walks he slaps his whip against his left leg and seems impervious to the wisecracks of the bettors. Most of the time his eyes focus on the horizon. He knows what's out there on the racetrack—success, money, but other things, too. Shoemaker has had three severe injuries and 40 minor ones.
Last week he rode with a fierce cold. On Thursday it had gotten so bad he took himself off six mounts and rested. At times during the week Shoe seemed to be riding in a straitjacket. People were betting his mounts down from 5 to 1 to even money as he tried to reach 7,000. When he failed, before the biggest California racing crowd in a dozen years, he didn't seem discouraged. "Oh," he said, "it will come in time." He said nothing about going for 10,000.