The names of the races can't really mean that much to Bill Shoemaker anymore. Heck, he's 50 years old and has been riding for 32 years, and the number of winning horses he has jumped on and off—more than 8,000—is virtually beyond comprehension. The jockey closest to him is Laffit Pincay Jr., and Pincay is some 3,000 winners behind. And how many athletes have had their best year at age 50?
Last Saturday at Belmont Park, "Willie the Shoe" won again when it truly mattered, and when the past performances of his mount said he shouldn't win. This time the name of the horse was John Henry and the name of the race the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Shoemaker first won the Gold Cup nearly a quarter century ago (on Gallant Man in 1957), and three years ago he won it with Exceller, defeating two Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew by a nose and Affirmed by a lot. This year's race was another close call, with the 6-year-old gelding John Henry holding off another 6-year-old gelding, Peat Moss, to win by a head.
After Shoemaker jumped off John Henry, however, he was called to a telephone to talk to the stewards and discuss a claim of foul lodged against him by Frank Lovato Jr., the rider of Peat Moss. "Yes, sir," Shoemaker said, "I thought I was clear. My horse was getting a little tired in the stretch, but when the other horse came up near him, he dug in again. Yes, sir, thank you." The Shoe put down the phone and a Pinkerton guard handed him a dozen roses. Shoemaker seemed bewildered. "Where did these come from?" he asked. "Just a lady," the Pinkerton said. "A fan. She carried them around all day, hoping she could give them to you if you won the Gold Cup."
Shoemaker took the flowers and looked into the crowd surrounding the winner's circle. "There she is," the Pinkerton said. Shoemaker lifted the roses into the air. "Special," he said. "Special. No fan ever did this for me before."
October 18, 1981
Somehow, the fall seems to belong to Bill Shoemaker. It is the time when championships are decided, and Shoemaker makes champions. "I guess people expect me to win," he said at Belmont. "Heck, I expect me to win." His wrinkled face was filthy and beaded with sweat. "Do you believe in the Shoemaker myth yourself?" he was asked. "I'm no myth," he said. "I'm just what I am."
When October comes to Belmont, late afternoon shadows fall across the curve at the top of the stretch, and in the half light it's hard to sort things out as the horses make their moves for the long, desperate chase to the finish line. The riders have problems of their own. In the Gold Cup, a 1½-mile race, Shoemaker pushed John Henry to the front at the top of the stretch, then wondered, "Have I moved too quick?" The race marked only the third time Shoemaker had ridden John Henry, and the horse has a mind of his own. When John Henry gets to the lead, he often gets lazy and waits for other horses to challenge him. John Henry opened up a length-and-a-half margin, and then loafed along, waiting for a horse to come up and run with him, to fight. One horse did. Approaching the wire, Peat Moss, a 50-1 shot, drove up alongside and forced John Henry to dig in and start running. The victory virtually secured Horse of the Year honors for John Henry, and his purse of $340,800 made him the richest in racing history, with a career total of $2,805,310, $23,703 more than Spectacular Bid.
John Henry is a marvelous old alley fighter. Although he's a gelding, he's mean. He loves to "run on the weeds," being virtually unbeatable on a turf course, and many Easterners thought he couldn't run on dirt. Westerners knew better; he had won the Santa Anita Handicap on dirt last March. John Henry had started seven times in 1981 and had won six races, his only loss coming on dirt in the Hollywood Gold Cup.
Although he is worthless for breeding, to his owners, Dorothy and Sam Rubin, John Henry is priceless. Rubin imports bicycles for a living, but his joy is betting on horses. According to Rubin, John Henry could have been named Horse of the Year without even running in the Gold Cup. "But I thought we had to run him," Rubin said before the race. "I owed it to the horse. I also owed it to racing. I paid $25,000 for John Henry, and he has won millions for Dot and me. You can't imagine the fun he has given us. If he loses, we won't cry; we'll just come back and try again. If you get beat, you get beat. But you'll still wake up in the morning. And I can still sell bicycles."
But John Henry's race was only part of the story Saturday afternoon. Rarely in any season does a track have a card quite like Belmont's for Oct. 10. Besides the $568,000 Gold Cup it also offered the $150,250 Champagne Stakes for 2-year-olds, and it, too, turned out to be a sensational race.
Before Dawn is a 2-year-old filly of uncommon talent. She is a shimmering bay, and her breeding is such (by Raise A Cup from the Tim Tarn mare Moonbeam) that one can truly say she has "trout jumping through her bloodstream." Years ago it wasn't uncommon for fillies to run against colts at the age of 2. No longer. The risks are too high, the races too tough. Before Dawn, owned by Calumet Farm, was undefeated in five starts before the Champagne and could have continued to win against fillies. Instead, trainer John Veitch decided to put her in the Champagne—the top 2-year-old race in the nation—against a dozen colts.
Two days before the Champagne, Veitch was at a cocktail party at a friend's home. People wished him luck and, as always, Veitch was gracious and funny. "I know what racetrackers are saying," he said. "They're saying, 'There goes Crazy John again. He's running a filly against colts. He shouldn't do that. You don't do that.' Well, we're going to do it. She's beaten all the other 2-year-old fillies, so let's try the colts and prove that she's the best 2-year-old around of either sex."
The Champagne, a one-mile race that has produced the ultimate 2-year-old champion in 15 of the last 17 years, proved that Before Dawn, the 4-5 favorite, is a remarkable filly indeed. She was on the inside, a horrible position at Belmont because the track along the rail is deep and tiring. Before Dawn broke 11th and had to race hard to catch up. She took the lead at the half-mile pole and carried it well until the wearying inside lane got to her. With about an eighth of a mile to go, Timely Writer came up the middle of the strip and won by 4¾ lengths in an impressive performance. But Before Dawn humiliated the other colts, beating them by from three to 25 lengths.
Timely Writer, now the best of the 2-year-old colts in the East, is owned by Frank and Peter Martin's Nitram (Martin spelled backward) Stable of Boston. Though good 2-year-olds seldom emerge from New England, Timely Writer has the look of a horse that will run a distance. His sire, Staff Writer, never raced but is by Northern Dancer, while his dam, Twill, is by Swaps. The colt has now won more than $210,000 and will probably give New Englanders their first genuine Kentucky Derby threat in memory.
Timely Writer's trainer, Dominic Imprescia, came out of the Merchant Marine in 1946 and opened a used-car lot in his hometown of Fitchburg, Mass. The used-car business was evidently so good that by 1947 Imprescia could afford to buy a few horses. In 1948 he fired his trainer but kept the car lot, and in 1960 he sold the auto business and became a full-time trainer. This past winter Imprescia was the leading trainer at Hialeah and this spring he realized an ambition by saddling a 23-1 long shot, Soldier Boy, which won the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs. The Mass 'Cap offers the biggest purse in New England ($162,000), but rarely has a New England-based horse won. This year, however, roars went up at Suffolk when Soldier Boy won the big one for the home folks.
When the Champagne was over, Imprescia gave Timely Writer the ultimate compliment. "He's the 2-year-old champion," he said, "and he beat a darned fine filly. The race was the biggest and most important I've ever won. It's even bigger than the Mass 'Cap."
John Henry probably will run twice more this year, in the $300,000 Oak Tree Invitational at Santa Anita and the $500,000 Hollywood Turf Cup. Those races are on grass. And so, by the end of 1981, it is more than likely that he will have amassed more than $3 million in purses. Not bad for a horse that once sold for $1,100.
Last Saturday afternoon at Belmont may have been a preview of what's ahead for racing fans. Before Dawn and Timely Writer are just coming into focus, and the public will have a chance to enjoy them for a while. John Henry is also going to be around and growing richer for at least a year or two. And Shoemaker has no intention of retiring, either. "Maybe." he said after the Gold Cup, "I'm just starting to get good."