At 3 a.m. on Aug. 19, 1931, in a two-room adobe shack in the West Texas farm town of Fabens. Ruby Shoemaker had already been in labor some six hours. At first she had thought the pains were caused by the cantaloupe she had eaten for dessert the night before. She was only 17, and eight months pregnant. Her husband, B.B., who clerked in the feed store down the street, was out celebrating his birthday. Ruby figured he had gone to Juàrez. Brother Phillips of the Fabens Baptist Church had come by to see what he could do, and his wife had come, too, and heated up some water on the four-burner kerosene stove. Brother Phillips had fetched Ruby's mother, Maudie Harris, because Ruby had asked for her. Then Doc McClain came by to handle the delivery. The boy, who was born at three, weighed one pound, 13 ounces. He had a full head of black hair, and when Doc McClain held him up, Ruby thought he looked like a drowned rat. The Doc spanked him on the rear but couldn't get a sound from him; he was silent even then. Despairing, the Doc put the baby at the foot of the bed and declared, "That will never live."
"Well, I don't care what you say," said Maudie Harris. "He's cold." She picked up the baby from the foot of the bed and carried him to the sink across the room and got a rag and some soap and washed him off in the water that Brother Phillips' wife had heated. Then she wrapped the baby in a doll's blanket and opened up the oven door and lit the stove. She turned the heat to low and put the baby on a pillow in a shoe box on the oven door. Then she pulled a chair up to the oven and sat there. The baby had his eyes open and he moved now and again but made no sound for two hours. Ruby drowsed on the bed, awoke, drowsed some more. At about five, Ruby heard what she thought was a field mouse crying, a tiny screeching sound. It was the boy. "Ruby, I think he's hungry," Maudie said, and brought him over to the bed. Ruby couldn't get over his hands, how small they were, so small they looked like little claws. The boy was simply too weak to suckle, so they got a breast pump and eyedropper and fed him. Then they tried to fit him with a regular diaper, but he got lost in the huge folds, so they cut the diaper into quarters which fit just right. "He'll live, Ruby, he'll live," Maudie said. "He's a little fighter."
Today, at age 48, William Lee Shoemaker has been born anew. He is riding into his fourth decade in the saddle as if it were his second. Horses and racing have been in this man's life for as long as he can remember—manes blown back against his hands, the roar of the crowd at the turn for home, two on top, the sound of hoofbeats in his ears. And surely, whatever he does and sees and feels today he has done and seen and felt before. But no longer is he the despairing Shoe of a few years ago, the tired Shoe who had a little potbelly and wondered if his career was at an end.
"It's been like a rejuvenation, a new beginning," he says. "I wish I could go on forever. I enjoy it. I enjoy riding today more than ever before. Because of the situation, partly, the way it changed. But also because of the knowledge—what I know in bringing horses up to different races, what I've been through all these years. I know how to do it. It's here that counts. Right now. Today. For me. I know my business. I know my game. And I love it."
The art was always in the hands, of course, instruments as fine and delicate as any rider ever had, and in his 31-year career Shoemaker has shaped the most impressive record of any jockey in the history of the sport. As of last Thursday, Shoemaker had ridden more horses (33,650), won more races (7,841), more stakes races (796), more $100,000 races (155) and more money ($77,275,929) than any man who ever looked between the ears of a horse. He has won virtually every stakes race in America, including three Kentucky Derbies, two Preaknesses and five Belmonts. California has been his base, and there were years when he owned the West Coast. Through 1967, when he was topped by Jerry Lambert at Santa Anita, Shoemaker had won 17 straight riding titles there. He has won the Santa Anita Handicap, for years the Coast's most important race for older horses, nine times. Ten times he has led the nation's riders in money won. He has ridden most of the very best horses to perform on the American turf in his three decades, a roll call of champions to rate a wing in the Racing Hall of Fame: Coaltown, Swaps, Gallant Man, Round Table, Intentionally, Sword Dancer, Cicada, Crimson Satan, Jaipur, Kelso, Northern Dancer, Tom Rolfe, Buckpasser, Damascus, Arts and Letters, Dr. Fager, Vitriolic, Ack Ack, Dahlia and Forego. And last year he got the mount on Spectacular Bid after Ronnie Franklin was replaced following his poorly executed ride in the Belmont Stakes.
"I think he's the best horse I've ever ridden," says the Shoe. "Each time I ride him, he convinces me more. He does everything like a great horse should do it. He won on every kind of track you can imagine. Carried his weight and won. He's so versatile you can move any time you want and then move again if you have to. And the horse is maturing, getting better, I think. We haven't seen the best of him yet." The man is sitting in the living room of his San Marino, Calif. house, sipping a vodka and tonic and puffing on a thin cigar. It is growing late. A fire is burning in the fireplace. He removes the cigar from his lips and leans slightly forward, the smoke lifting a question in the air. "Who ever in their life has been able to do that?" he says. "Oh, I'm a good rider. Can ride. I know that. But who has ever been able to do that? At 48 years old, to get on a horse like that?"
Despite all the riding championships, all the splendid horses he has ridden, all the years of celebrity, there is in Shoemaker a quality of solitariness, not surprising perhaps in a man from the wide spaces of Texas. Shoemaker spent his youth there, and when he moved to California at the age of 10, he left with more than its dust in his hair. His parents were divorced when he was four. Ruby took the child to live with her in Winters, in central Texas. She and her parents, Ed and Maudie, sharecropped a ranch. They picked cotton. They grew alfalfa. They spent much of their time in the fields with burlap bags slung over their shoulders, chopping cotton or cutting corn. "Work, work, work," Ruby says. "It was a rough life in the Depression, I'll tell you, and little old Bill knows it."
Recollections of his enterprise and self-sufficiency still draw howls of laughter from Ruby and her cousin, Dorothy Abbott. One day, while working in a field in the hot sun, Bill threw his hoe at Grandpa Harris' feet and walked off toward the house. "Grandpa," he said, "I'll never pick up another hoe. There's gotta be a better way to make a living, and I'm gonna find it." He was eight years old.
Another time, he and his younger brother, Lonnie, were visiting Dorothy Abbott on her ranch and playing with Dorothy's 4-year-old son, Dick. Dorothy looked out the window, wondering what the boys were doing, and saw Dick lying under the water pump, about 100 yards away, with Bill standing over him working the handle. In a panic, she dashed across the yard. "There was my boy Dick," she says, "out colder than a mackerel, and there was little Bill, this little bitty thing, pumping water on him, just as calm as a cucumber. I said, 'What happened?' And Bill said, 'The horse kicked Dick in the chest. We drug him over here. He'll be all right.' He was just as nonchalant as he could be."
Bill was six years old. He had been around horses from his earliest years, and he actually drew his first mount when he was five, in 1936, the year Bold Venture won the Kentucky Derby. Ruby and Ed Harris were leaving the ranch house for the fields when Ruby heard her father say, "Look! Look!" She turned to the corral just in time to see Bill climbing up on the top rung of the wooden fence. The family stable pony was alongside. Ruby screamed, "My Gawd! He's gonna get killed."
"Shhhh," said Ed. "You're gonna scare the horse." Bill reached over, grabbed the pony's mane and jumped, pulling himself aboard. "I liked to have a fit," Ruby says. "So I just froze there and watched him. He grabbed the mane and kicked his little legs, and the horse just walked around the corral with him. He was holdin' on to that horse and grinnin' like I don't know what. He just wasn't afraid of anything."
Certainly not Tommy Campbell, an uncle who made a kind of career of harassing the boy. Campbell locked him in the tool shed one day. He had just told Ruby about it, rather smugly, when she saw Bill turning the corner behind the shed. "He only thought he locked me in there," said Bill. "I dug my way out." He had burrowed out beneath the back wall. "He dug himself out like a dog," she says.
Shoemaker brought that unflappable calm—and that knack for getting out of trouble—to every racetrack he rode on. Few jockeys, if any, have ridden neater on a horse—hands back with a long hold, sitting ever so still. And few have had his ability to keep a horse out of trouble, to find the surest way home, to rate a horse, to control him with the subtlest flick of his wrist and hands, to slip-slide out of traffic and hold a horse together in a drive. Eddie Arcaro used to say that Shoemaker could ride a horse with silken threads for reins.
Shoemaker was a sensation almost from the start—his first win came on Shafter V at Golden Gate Fields on April 20, 1949—the heir apparent to Arcaro among the sport's legends, but he had his share of adversity. One episode is legend by now. In the 1957 Kentucky Derby, riding Gallant Man, Shoemaker was locked in a struggle with Iron Liege and Bill Hartack, when he stood up briefly, mistaking the 16th pole for the finish line. Gallant Man never really lost a beat, but he may have hesitated an instant at a moment when he couldn't afford to. Iron Liege won it by a whisker.
A rider of less resilience might not have survived the gaffe, but Shoemaker did, coming back to win the Belmont on Gallant Man. In the ensuing years he was preeminent, taking the money-winning title in 1958 for the fourth time in his career, and then every year thereafter through 1964, when young Braulio Baeza came along.
As Shoemaker neared the 70s, though riding as well as ever on both coasts, a malaise set in. In 1967, the year he rode Damascus to the Horse of the Year title, the first year in Shoe's career in which his mounts earned more than $3 million, for the first time in his life he felt his enthusiasm waning. Ever since he had ridden Swaps to record-smashing victories in 1956, his mounts had earned at least $2 million annually, but there had been a certain evenness to his career. "Maybe it was getting boring to me," he says. "I'd been doing it so long by then, riding all kinds of races all the time. It wasn't that I was up and down. I was like on an even keel all the time. If maybe I'd had some variety in there, maybe if I'd done bad in there and couldn't get things going, it might not have happened."
But 1968, the year he approached with a yawn, brought more variety than he had reckoned on. All through his career, despite occasional mishaps and spills. Shoemaker had never had a serious injury. In January at Santa Anita he suffered a badly broken femur when his horse, Bel Bush, fell and accidentally kicked him. Doctors inserted a rod in his leg to keep it together. "We couldn't get a rod small enough at our hospital," one of the surgeons, Dr. Robert Kerlan, says. "We had to get one from Children's Hospital." The 13-month convalescence was a kind of agony that Shoemaker had never before had to endure. "I just went crazy," he says. "I realized how much I enjoyed riding because I couldn't do it. I'd been taking it for granted. Anytime I wanted to do it, I could do it; anytime I didn't want to, I didn't have to. But when I couldn't do it, that put a different light on the whole picture. It made me realize what an idiot I was, thinking the way I did. That broken leg turned out to be good for me."
He came back in February of 1969, but not for long. On April 30, a filly flipped over backward in the paddock at Hollywood Park, throwing him and pinning him against a hedge. The accident crushed his pelvis, tore his bladder and damaged nerves in his leg. "It was what we call a Humpty-Dumpty injury," Kerlan says. "You know, 'All the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't....' His pelvis was like a large dinner plate that had been broken in a lot of pieces. There wasn't much to set. There was no way to open this up and put it back together. He was put in traction until it showed some evidence of healing. It was a tough injury."
Shoemaker was out another three months and though horsemen wondered whether he would ever ride again, "There was never any doubt in my mind that I would come back," he says. "I accepted it. I know a lot of people thought that that would be the end of me and my career. But I never had that feeling."
In 1970, to much hoopla, he won his 6,033rd horse race, passing Johnny Longden as the winningest rider in the history of the sport. Shoemaker stands 4'11" and wears a 2D shoe—and for all his career his weight has hovered around 95 pounds. He has never had to do battle with his weight, as Longden did in the last years of his career, never had to face the problem that seems to consume so many riders as they near 40—heading for the sweatbox at noon with towels wrapped around their necks. So, as Shoemaker turned the corner of his third decade as a rider, there was reason to believe, barring injuries, that he could go on almost indefinitely—for as long as he wanted to ride, for as long as the reflexes remained, for as long as he stayed fit.
He had always taken care of himself. Then in the early '70s he found himself in a kind of trap, a blind switch from which he couldn't escape. He was married to a woman he no longer loved and didn't want to live with anymore—a woman, he says, whose social aspirations, outlook and interests were incompatible with his. He says this not to condemn but to explain what happened to him in the early '70s, when he lost his desire to ride, began declining to work horses in the morning, at times called in sick to the jocks' room and began to think he had had it as a rider.
Shoemaker was first married in 1950, when he was only 18 and in his second year as a rider, to Virginia McLaughlin, whom he had met through a fellow jockey. The marriage lasted for 11 years, and they had two adopted children. They were divorced in 1961. "We were too young," says Shoemaker.
Then Shoemaker married Babbs Bayer of Texas, whom he had met a few years before. "Bright, pretty and clever," Shoemaker says. Bill and Babbs lived first in Pasadena, then San Marino, a fashionable, conservative community not far from Santa Anita. In the mid-'60s they made a big move socially, going to live on the 31st floor of a high-rise in Beverly Hills.
Bill Shoemaker was a celebrity. In his soft-spoken, easygoing kind of way, he had emerged as the embodiment of thoroughbred racing on the Coast, as recognizable in Southern California as any movie star. Racetrackers admired him to the point of reverence. Horse players called him "The Shoe" and bet him with both hands. Latin bettors took to calling him "El Zapatero," The Shoemaker, and also "El Maestro," The Teacher. And as the years went by they spoke of him as "El Viejo," The Old One, but always respectfully.
In Beverly Hills, of course, the Shoemakers were on all the invitation lists. Babbs was stunning in fur coats and expensive clothes and beautiful jewelry. She and Bill were seen at the right places. Babbs got into charity work, which is the thing to do in Beverly Hills, and the couple was frequently mentioned in society columns.
Shoemaker, however, had always thought of himself as a simple, uncomplicated man of simple, uncomplicated tastes. He was, after all, the shy little son of a former sharecropper who had grown up poor in the Depression in Texas and made it rich in the Golden Land. Now here he was in Beverly Hills in the social whirl. Unremembered hosts introduced him to unremembered guests whom he did not particularly want to know. "I want to introduce you to Bill Shoemaker," the hosts would say. Shoemaker remembers the refrain. "I've heard that a trillion times," he says. "I never really wanted to know them. I went to their houses and I couldn't remember them now if I tried because I want to put it out of my mind. I remember going to the parties. But I can't remember whose parties they were, or why they were."
In 1973, out of fear for their lives, the Shoemakers moved from their 31st-floor apartment—"We had an earthquake at six o'clock one morning," says the Shoe, "and the building was going around and you could hear the girders squeaking"—to a home in Beverly Hills that Babbs had redesigned. Instead of snugging the bar into a corner, which she thought would reinforce Bill's disposition to withdraw, she had the bar built so it jutted out into the living room area, to bring him into the center of things. Though the disposition to be so never left him, he was no longer the retiring youngster of the '50s. At the party Babbs threw at Chasen's to introduce her plastic surgeon to 300 or so friends and acquaintances. Bill met the guests at the door. Babbs Bayer Shoemaker says she doesn't believe she overdid the social side. She says she understood his needs as a rider and an athlete and didn't know he didn't like the kind of life they were leading. But Shoemaker says that these were among the important reasons why he slipped as a jockey in the early '70s, why he periodically failed to fulfill his responsibilities as a rider, why he considered retirement in 1974 and why, ultimately, he sought the divorce that Babbs wound up granting him.
"You can't be a leading rider and make the society columns at the same time," says Trainer Charles Whittingham, one of Shoemaker's oldest friends in racing. "I got off the beaten track," says Shoe.
Shoemaker remained among the leading riders of stakes horses, but in the early years of the decade he was riding progressively less. Worse, he wasn't riding with the aggressiveness and command that had marked him in his heyday. He was, to be sure, still a star, and he never became less than the No. 1 rider for Whittingham, who stuck by him when the slip began. This is not to say he rode poorly, for he never lost his touch, his feel, his sense of pace and rhythm. "It's a touch, a feel you have with your hands, like a golfer," says Shoemaker. "They are there all the time, your feel, your touch. You learn the craft and you might improve on the technique, but the touch and feel are there. Your legs and other parts of your body go, but your touch...no."
What went was the desire. He won 195 races on 881 mounts in 1971, the first year, except for the times when he was injured, he had taken fewer than 900 mounts. In 1973, the nadir of his career, he accepted only 639 mounts and won 139 races; the next year his 17% winning percentage was the lowest in a career that had averaged about 24%. "He didn't really care that much in those years," says Laffit Pincay Jr., one of Shoemaker's closest friends. "I could tell just watching him. Not taking too many chances. He didn't ride aggressively on young horses. I know when a rider's really trying. I know when a rider's going out of his way to win. I looked at him one day in the jocks' room and he looked like a little fat man."
One of his oldest friends in the jockeys' room, Don Pierce, figured that Shoemaker would announce his retirement. "I thought it was only a matter of time," says Pierce. "I've known him a long time, and he was depressed. Bill's always kibitzing in the jocks' room. Touching you with a hot coffee spoon. Stealing someone's cuff links. Hitting your funny bone." He pauses. "It came on so slow it never really hit me; I just occasionally missed the kibitzing. It got to the point where he'd walk into the jocks' room, not say much to anyone, ride and leave. But he never complained."
"I guess I'm the type who holds all that in and keeps it to himself," Shoemaker says. "I always thought I could handle my own problems, but apparently I couldn't." He didn't even complain to the man he had known the longest, the man with whose family he had lived in his early days on the track, his surrogate father and agent from the beginning, Harry Silbert. Silbert is the only agent Shoemaker has ever had, and is as protective of his rider as any man who ever scrawled a horse's name in a condition book. Back in 1950, when Shoemaker was about to lose the apprentice bug and with it many mounts, he said to Harry, "Maybe you should try to get another rider; you got a family to support." Harry scoffed. "Don't worry about it, Bill," he said. "You're going to make it."
The early 1970s were especially trying for Silbert, an avuncular, soft-spoken former Brooklynite who is almost as unobtrusive as the Shoe. Silbert would get him the mounts, but whether Shoemaker would actually show up to ride them became problematical. "I never knew from one day to another," Silbert says. Late in the morning Shoemaker might call Dean Scarborough, the clerk of the scales at Santa Anita, and take himself off his mounts for the day. "He'd call and say he didn't feel too good," Scarborough says. "Touch of the flu." Silbert would call Scarborough, who would pass on the news. "If he wasn't there, I'd go home," Harry says. "I'd have to face the trainers in the morning. I'd say Bill got sick; but how many excuses can you make? I had an idea what was wrong, but I just couldn't talk about it with him."
"Tell me what's wrong," Harry would say.
"Nothing wrong," the Shoe would reply.
"I know something's wrong. You can't keep it in you. You have to talk to people. You're going to blow up."
"No problem with you," the Shoe would say. "Problems at home."
"I met a lot of nice people in Beverly Hills, but it wasn't my style," Shoemaker says. "An athlete's supposed to be doing a job the next day, and those people don't have anything to do. They can sleep all day. It affected my riding. It affected my attitude about it a lot. You get up the next day and don't feel any good. It doesn't help you none getting home at midnight or one in the morning. It wasn't good. You don't really give a damn. You're on a horse and you do something, and if it works, fine; if it doesn't, who cares? That sort of thing."
Pincay was right. The old fire was gone. Some horsemen saw uncharacteristic mental lapses in Shoemaker's riding. Longden, now a trainer, saw a man who had lost his sharpness. "He had to have something on his mind." Longden says. "Something was bothering him. Oh, I could tell. He wasn't riding like he should've been riding. He was making wrong moves. It wasn't Shoemaker. He was making decisions in a race that weren't his. Shoemaker is the best rider I ever saw. There has never been any better rider. I don't think so. No sir. When Shoe is right, he's right there—Johnny-on-the-spot. He takes over when another rider is there just thinking about it. He's thinking about it and Shoe's done it. Shoe wasn't thinking."
Shoemaker didn't want to confront his problems, to admit his marriage was a failure, so he told people he was tired. "I feel like I've had it." Shoemaker told Silbert in the Santa Anita parking lot one day in 1974. "I'm tired." It was the first time he had ever said such a thing to Silbert. "What do you mean you're tired and you don't feel like riding?" Harry demanded. "I don't want you to go out this way." Looking back on it now. Shoemaker says he probably rationalized his loss of interest and desire by telling himself that he was getting older and that he should be riding less.
As he cut back on his mounts. Babbs recalls saying to him. "'Either you have to announce your retirement or you have to stay with it and ride.' We had just bought a home in Beverly Hills. The notes come due at the bank and life goes on. To cut his riding in half made a difference in our life-style, a life-style I was never aware he didn't enjoy. I enjoyed my life with William very much and I think I did understand that he had to stay in shape. I think he's wrong when he says I didn't understand his career."
Shoemaker's return to top form came in stages. It began when he decided to ride as he knew he could ride—or get out. This was no act of survival. Hollywood Park offered him an executive job in 1973, but he turned it down; he knew he could always train horses. Now he ran to get in shape. He watched his diet. And. finally, he went through a rigorous testing program at the National Athletic Health Institute in Inglewood, Calif. to find out exactly what kind of condition he was in. "It turned out he was in the top 10% of all the athletes that we did." Kerlan says. "It was very stimulating for him."'
So he was back, and now without the potbelly. He had always ridden his share of stakes winners, even when he was slipping, but in 1976 he got an unexpected lift when his old friend Frank Whiteley chose him to ride Forego. In the fall of that year he patiently fashioned out of certain defeat one of the most exquisite finishes in the history of racing. Hopelessly out of it turning for home in the Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park, letting the huge gelding drift toward the middle of the track, never snatching him off balance to alter his course. Shoemaker pushed and sweet-talked Forego home, just getting up to win by a snip over Honest Pleasure. The old horse had never run better, but he needed the old man that day.
By then things had begun to resolve themselves in Bill Shoemaker's life. He and Babbs separated on Feb. 14, 1977, St. Valentine's Day; she sued for divorce the following day, citing "irreconcilable differences" by which she says she meant. "Well, quite frankly, he was in love with another woman." If he wasn't then, he was soon enough.
Babbs moved to Palm Springs, leaving Bill their five toy poodles, Misshoe, Tuffy, Tissue, Missy and Bruiser. "I was happy and relieved when she drove out of the driveway," he says. "I could play with the dogs and enjoy life."
On July 24 Shoemaker became engaged to Cindy Barnes, a 27-year-old sportswoman who shared his interest in racing and preference in life-style—and used to beat him in tennis. They had met 10 years earlier at Del Mar and had been casual friends ever since. "The real turning point with me, in my mind, was when I started dating Cindy." Shoemaker says. "I've often thought how strange life is. Unbelievable. When I met her, she was just a young girl, about 20. She rode horses, hunters and jumpers. She played tennis. Who in the hell would ever think I'd wind up marrying her? Never ever crossed my mind." And then, with his marriage on the rocks, it suddenly did. On their second date after the divorce, he made what was less a proposal than a proclamation. "You know," he said, "you're going to marry me." To which she replied, "I am?" "She liked the things I liked, the life that I liked, the kind of life I lived," says Shoemaker. "She was into it."
The divorce was granted at 4 p.m. on March 6, 1978, and at 4 p.m. on March 7 Cindy and Bill were married in the backyard of her parents' home in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, outside San Diego. They settled into a small house in Beverly Hills with the five poodles and a barbecue, on which he liked to broil chicken for dinner, and they played backgammon in the evenings. "The past was gone," Cindy Shoemaker says. "It was our own life now."
And things were breaking for them. In 1978 Shoemaker's mounts earned $5,231,390, a personal high, and this year they could exceed even that, largely because he is riding Spectacular Bid. When Trainer Bud Delp and owners Harry, Tom and Teresa Meyerhoff decided to take Ronnie Franklin off the horse, Delp gave the Meyerhoffs the names of a few jockeys to consider: Chris McCarron, Darrel McHargue, Jacinto Vasquez and Shoemaker. After Franklin's near-disastrous ride on Spectacular Bid in the Florida Derby in March, an angry Delp had said, "Shoemaker's only a phone call away," and Silbert had offered a pocketful of change. "Anytime you need me," he said.
Delp finally decided to replace Franklin when the horses were going down the backstretch in the Belmont. He believed Franklin was riding scared, evading a jockey with whom he was feuding, Angel Cordero Jr., and chasing an 80-1 shot. "That's when it first hit my mind," Delp says. "We knew we had to come back to New York for the Marlboro Cup and the Jockey Club Gold Cup—and Cordero. It was a decision that had to be made for the best interests of Bid." Delp favored Shoe. Besides Shoemaker's experience and style and the extraordinary gift of his hands, to whose touch Delp felt Bid would respond like Pegasus, there was one more important factor.
"How do you feel about it?" Harry Meyerhoff asked.
"I'd love to meet that rider," Bud said. "You know, I never met him."
"I haven't either," said Harry. "That would be nice."
It did not take the Meyerhoffs long to decide. "We're going with the heel-and-toe man," said Harry Meyerhoff. The only reservation he and his trainer had about Shoemaker was his age. "Not so much his physical reactions as his mental attitude." Meyerhoff says. "At his age...."
Actually, Meyerhoff couldn't have entertained an emptier fear. For already this was a more buoyant Shoemaker, and with every gust of wind at his back he was feeling even more exhilarated. Since he had left one life and begun another, he was a different person. And he was up to his old tricks, back to doing things he had stopped doing, back to the hot-spoon trick and hiding the cuff links. Doc Kerlan, who owns horses, stopped in the jockeys' room at Hollywood Park one day last summer, draped his $375 sports coat over a chair and sat down to play cards. When the card game was over, Kerlan left and went to his box seat and sat down. He reached into his right pocket for a mint. And then he leaped from his seat, yelling, "That little son of a———" To this day the coat still smells of chili sauce. "I knew absolutely without doubt who it was," Kerlan says. "There isn't anyone as diabolical when it comes to practical jokes. But I got him. I waited several weeks. I made a special mixture of slime, the kind that you can buy, and I mixed it with butyric acid, which is the stinkingest stuff in the world, and I mixed it into one of the most horrible mixtures that ever existed, and one day he had his little boots set out and I filled the shoe part with it and he put his foot in it."
Last fall Shoemaker won the Marlboro Cup with Spectacular Bid, on a day on which the man could apparently do no wrong. Counting back on her fingers, Cindy figures that that was the day she got pregnant. For the first time in a long while, at age 48, Shoemaker was going to be a father. "He was in a state of shock," she says, "ecstatic shock. For a while Bill was driving me crazy: 'Don't lift this, don't lift that. Don't eat this, don't eat that. Don't do this, don't do that.' " At the year's end Shoemaker's mounts had earned a $4,427,860, sixth best in the country.
In April the Shoemakers moved from Beverly Hills to San Marino, a change not without symbolic meaning "There was nothing to keep me in Beverly Hills anymore," Shoemaker says.
Now racetrackers fairly marvel at a man renewed. "He's a great rider, he always was, but I see a new vitality, a new energy about him," says Trainer John Russell.
"Through all this rain and mud and bad days we've been having, Shoe's the first one on the scale," says Scarborough, who once took the messages when Shoe called in with the flu. "He's sort of the leader, by example. Jockeys complain about the rain and cold, and Shoe listens and laughs at them."
"I have never seen Shoemaker so happy in the 25 years I've known him," says Laz Barrera, who trained the Triple Crown winner Affirmed. "He is riding as good as he ever has at any time in his life."
Shoemaker is riding like a bug boy again, as a matter of fact, working horses in the morning, hustling them home in the afternoon. Silbert turned the corner of a shed recently and, to his amazement, saw Shoemaker down on his knees stripping bandages off a horse he had just worked. "I'm like a little kid again, you know?" Shoe says. "I want to get out there and see how a horse feels and try to work him the right way and not work him too hard or too easy, just enough to help him get ready for his next race.
"I like to be around the horses in the morning—the atmosphere, it's what I enjoy in life. That's my life-style. That other thing is for somebody in the movies, not me. My life-style is early in the morning. The sun's coming up. The air's fresh. See the horses breathing, the steam coming out of their noses, having a feel for it, enjoying it. They have different personalities. A good trainer can watch his horse walk to the track and almost know how good his horse feels. That comes from a lot of years being around them. That's what you call having a 'feel' for the game. That's the good part, the morning. You feel the difference from one work to the next and see how they develop, feel how they develop. I feel it. I know it. They're communicating with you—if you only know what to look for and how to read it."
"I'm so darn happy for him," says Arcaro. "But he's still 48 going on 49, and nothing saves you there. Time rolls by, and those kids are going to come up and chop on him." Well, they've been chopping on El Viejo for years, and they haven't yet cut the mainspring.
Shoe puffs on his cigar and taps his forehead. "I'm not as good now as I was when I was 25, 30 years old, physically, but mentally I'm better," he says. "If somebody had told me when I was 28 that I would still be riding when I was 48, I'd have said, 'You've got to be crazy.' Whatever happened to me in life, I tried to keep everything on an even keel and think right about it. I never got silly about it. Even when I wasn't thinking good, I always had a little stability to me that kept me in there going. You know what I mean? That probably saved me. I never got silly."
Whatever it was, it got him to 1980. to here, to right now, as rich as any rider in the game, richer in a way. His is an old American story—the story of the Texas boy too tough to die at birth, who threw down the hoe and climbed on the horse and dug his way out of the tool shed and came West and made his fortune and his name and who got lost and was found again.
It is growing dark and El Viejo is driving home from Santa Anita, down Laurel Canyon Boulevard. He is silent. Then he slips the car over to the curb, where Laurel Canyon meets Moorpark Street, and cuts the engine of his BMW in front of Flowersville, a florist. "I'm going to make Cindy happy," he says. "She loves flowers. Just be a minute." He chooses a freshly cut old-fashioned bouquet of carnations and chrysanthemums, sweet william and baby's breath. "Thank you," he says to the cashier. "Very pretty."
The lady is breathless. "Do you know who that is?" she says as he leaves. "That's Bill Shoemaker. He's the sweetest man in the world."