Horse racing's most famous jockey, Willie Shoemaker (born 1931) was a tiny, gentle rider who set a world record with 8,833 winning races, including 11 victories in Triple Crown races. He raced for more than 40 years and was the oldest rider (at age 54) and one of the youngest (at age 23) to win the Kentucky Derby.
Weighing under 100 pounds and standing less than five feet tall, Shoemaker was an unlikely star athlete. Yet he seemed always to coax the best performances out of his horses. For decades, he rode in dozens of races nearly every week of the year. After his retirement, he was critically injured in a car accident and became a spokesman for the rights of disabled persons.
From Small Beginnings
Born at his family's rural Texas home in 1931, Billy Lee Shoemaker weighed only one pound, 13 ounces. The doctor attending the birth told his mother the baby wouldn't live. Shoemaker's grandmother put him in a shoebox, turned on the oven, and put the box on the open oven door. The homemade incubator helped the tiny baby defy the odds.
Though his father was nearly six foot tall, Shoemaker remained small as he grew into manhood. His father worked in cotton mills and at odd jobs, and the family moved frequently during the Depression years. When the boy was seven, he went to live on his grandfather's ranch and started riding a horse every day to get the mail. Once, he nearly drowned when he fell into a cattle trough.
Shoemaker preferred riding horses to going to school, and he often skipped classes. When he was ten, his parents divorced, and he went to California to live with his father and his new wife. At El Monte Union High School, Shoemaker weighed only 80 pounds. He tried out for football and basketball, but the coaches thought he was too little. So he turned to wrestling and boxing. As a wrestler, he consistently beat boys bigger than him. He never lost a match.
A girl at school introduced him to a boy who was a jockey, and Shoemaker started working at a thoroughbred horse ranch. After 11th grade, he quit school so he could work full-time at the ranch, cleaning the stables and learning about horses.
Pulled Out in Front
The owner of the ranch was president of Hollywood Park, a racing venue. At the ranch, a retired jockey showed Shoemaker how to ride a thoroughbred. The teenager became immersed in all aspects of training and riding horses. Shoemaker started hanging around California racetracks and became an apprentice to trainer George Reeves. Reeves saw Shoemaker's talent and interest and gave Shoemaker his start at riding.
Shoemaker was only 17 when he rode his first horse in a race, on March 19, 1949, at Golden Gate Fields. His horse, Waxahachie, finished fifth. In his third race, on April 20, Shoemaker entered the winner's circle for the first time, riding a horse named Shafter V. Reeves at first took a lot of criticism for letting such a young and inexperienced jockey ride, but Shoemaker won seven races in his second week in the saddle.
Even for a jockey, Shoemaker was small: four feet eleven inches and 96 pounds. He did little talking and soon earned the nickname "Silent Shoe." His calm demeanor atop his horses also surprised observers. Most jockeys kicked, whipped and pulled hard on the reins. Shoemaker became known for his "soft hands" and gentle riding techniques.
In 1949, even though he had gotten a late start, he won 219 races, second-most in the United States. The following year, he tied the all-time record, set in 1906, by winning 388 races in one season. For much of that year he rode nine races each weekday and 12 others at a different track on Sundays. Throughout his career Shoemaker would hardly pause for breath as he switched horses and rode race after race. Six times in his career he would ride six winners in one day.
In 1950 Shoemaker hooked up with Red McDaniel, the winningest trainer in the country. One day he won four races even though his foot was so swollen from stepping on a stingray at a beach that he had to wear special boots. That year, he raced in New York for the first time and won three races in his first day at the Aqueduct track. He quickly became a national figure. By the time he turned 20, he was the top jockey in the United States and already married to his first wife, Ginny.
Sped Past the Competition
In 1953, Shoemaker rode in about 1,600 races and set a new single-season record by winning 485 of them. That record would stand for more than 20 years. The next season, he won 380 out of 1,251 races, setting a 20th century record for winning percentage by an American rider.
In 1954, Shoemaker began riding horses for breeder-owner Rex Ellsworth, including Swaps. Shoemaker and Swaps upset veteran jockey Eddie Arcaro and his favored horse Nashua in the Kentucky Derby. Later that year, Nashua beat Swaps in a famous match race.
In the 1957 Kentucky Derby, Shoemaker made a rare mental mistake, mistaking a furlong pole for the finish line and standing up in his stirrups before the race was finished. His horse, Gallant Man, ended up losing by a nose to Iron Liege, and Shoemaker was suspended for 15 days, even though his was an innocent error and might not have been decisive. After that, Churchill Downs painted a big bull'seye at the finish line. Shoemaker rode Gallant Man to victory in the Belmont Stakes a few weeks later.
Early in 1958, Shoemaker notched his 3,000th win. He again was the year's leading rider, winning 300 races. For the next seven years he would be the sport's biggest money winner. In 1959, Shoemaker again won the Kentucky Derby, riding Tomy Lee, who beat Sword Dancer, the horse Shoemaker had wanted to ride. Shoemaker rode Sword Dancer to fourth place in the Preakness and then to victory in the Belmont Stakes. Shoemaker won 347 races for the year, tops again. At age 27, he was inducted into the Jockeys' Hall of Fame at the Pimlico track in Florida.
In May 1961, Shoemaker, not yet 30, won his 4,000th race—a mark only three other jockeys in horse racing history had achieved. That year, he married his second wife, Babbs. Shoemaker won the Belmont again in 1962, riding Jaipur, and in 1963 won the Preakness for the first time, riding Candy Spots. Early in 1964, Shoemaker surpassed Arcaro's career earnings record with more than $30 million. In October of that year, Shoemaker got his 5,000th win.
In 1965, Shoemaker won his third Kentucky Derby, riding Lucky Debonair. He was the most famous jockey in the United States, and a well-known sports figure worldwide. In 1967, he won the Belmont and the Preakness on Damascus. Within 13 years ending in 1967, he had won nine Triple Crown races.
In January 1968, Shoemaker's horse went down in a race at Santa Anita. Shoemaker broke his leg when he fell off and was struck by the hind leg of another horse. For a while, Shoemaker didn't believe he would ever race again. But after months of therapy, he returned to race at Santa Anita in February 1969, winning all three races he rode that day. "As it turns out, it's possible that spill prolonged my career because it made me realize how much I loved riding horses," Shoemaker wrote in his autobiography. "You get blasé when you're doing well year after year. Then you have a setback, and you realize you have no business being blasé."
Shoemaker's bad luck continued a few months later when he suffered an injury two days before he was to race in the Kentucky Derby. A horse flipped backwards and fell on him, breaking his pelvis, rupturing his bladder and causing other internal injuries as well as nerve damage in his leg. This time, the Shoe was out three months.
In 1970, Shoemaker targeted jockey John Longden's all-time win record of 6,032. He passed 6,000 in August and then battled increasing media attention as he closed in on the mark. On September 7, he broke the record, riding a filly named Dares J. Longden had taken 40 years to compile his record, but Shoemaker had broken it in 22 seasons. And the Shoe was far from finished.
By 1975, at the age of 43, he was still one of the top jockeys in the world, winning the Belmont Stakes on Avatar. On March 14, 1976, at Santa Anita, Shoemaker reached another milestone with his 7,000th win. He had teamed up with trainer Charles Wittingham and together they formed one of the most successful partnerships in horse racing history. In 1978, he divorced Babbs and married his third wife, Cindy Barnes, and they had a daughter, Amanda.
Refused to Quit
Although his pace slowed down as he aged, Shoemaker continued to win big races. In 1981 he became the first jockey to win a one-million-dollar race when he rode John Henry in the first Arlington Million. Entering the Kentucky Derby in 1986, Shoemaker was considered too old to be a factor. But he won the race on Ferdinand, despite 18-to-1 odds against the horse.
When Shoemaker finally decided to retire, a farewell tour was organized. For nine months, crowds came to see Shoe, who raced at 48 tracks, including tracks in England, Sweden and Germany as well as out-of-the-way places in Texas and Oklahoma. His last ride was February 3, 1990, at Santa Anita, and 64,573 spectators turned out, but Shoe-maker's horse finished fourth.
In his career, Shoemaker rode 40,350 mounts and won 8,333 races, including 1,009 stakes races and 11 Triple Crown races. His horses earned more than $123 million in purses. In ten different years, he was the top money winner on the racing circuit. Shoemaker often said he didn't place much stock in records and that every record he set would eventually be broken. In 1999, his career record of 8,333 wins was eclipsed by jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr.
After his retirement, Shoemaker became a trainer in southern California. His life changed dramatically on April 8, 1991. Driving home from a golf outing, he lost control of his Ford Bronco, which plummeted over a 50-foot embankment. Shoemaker was left paralyzed from the neck down. Arrested on suspicion of drunken driving with a blood-alcohol level twice the legal limit, he was never prosecuted, because no other victims were involved in the accident.
Though the crash left him a quadriplegic for life, the indomitable Shoemaker refused to give up. Taking up physical therapy for the third time, he resumed horse training in a supervisory role in September 1991, and kept working as a trainer, using a mouth-controlled wheelchair, until he retired in November 1997. His fans rallied too, contributing to a $2 million endowment of the Shoemaker Foundation, organized by friends, which helped pay for Shoemaker's treatment and support and for other horse trainers, grooms and jockeys who were injured.
In 1993, Shoemaker and Ford Motor Company agreed to a $1 million settlement of his claim that poor automotive design had caused the rollover accident. The automaker admitted no culpability. For his part, Shoemaker asked for no sympathy. "You have to play the hand you're dealt," he told writer William Nack of Sports Illustrated, "and I was dealt this one." In 1994, his third wife, Cindy, divorced him.
After retiring as a trainer, Shoemaker continued as honorary chairman of the Paralysis Project, an organization dedicated to improving spinal cord research and treatment. "The most important thing," he told an interviewer for Web MD Live, "is don't ever, ever, ever give up."
Shoemaker, Willie and Dan Smith, The Shoe: Willie Shoemaker's Illustrated Book of Racing, Rand McNally, 1976.
Automotive News, March 1, 1993.
People Weekly, April 29, 1991.
Sports Illustrated, February 5, 1990; April 19, 1993.
U.S. News and World Report, February 12, 1990.
"Mind Over Body: The Willie Shoemaker Story with Willie Shoemaker," MSNBC Heath, http://content.health.msn.com/content/article/1707.50022.
"Shoemaker made racing history," ESPN Sports Century, http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016470.html .
"Willie Shoemaker, Ageless Sultan of the Saddle," Famous Texans, http://www.famoustexans.com.