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Although Small In Stature, "The Shoe" Was Larger Than Life by Jeremy Martin
Bill "The Shoe" Shoemaker will be memorialized on Tuesday at 4 p.m. PST at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. The Hall of Fame jockey died in his sleep Sunday at the age of 72 from natural causes. The memorial service, which will appropriately be held in the winner's circle, will be open to the public and will be attended by "everyone in the industry," according to a Santa Anita representative, as well as legions of racing fans.
The legendary jockey had previously requested that he have no funeral and that his body be cremated, said the official. Coincidentally, the Breeder's Cup World Thoroughbred Championships will be held at Santa Anita the following Saturday, so there will no doubt be a big turnout from fans and industry luminaries that are already in town.
"He was one of the greatest human beings I ever had the pleasure of knowing in my life," said Chris McCarron, a fellow retired Hall of Fame jockey who now serves as general manager of Santa Anita, as quoted in the Daily Racing Form. "He will be remembered most for his race record, but what I would like to see people remember him for was his great character and compassion. It was an honor to call him your friend."
Shoemaker built up some impressive credentials in his 42-year riding career. He rode four Kentucky Derby winners and recorded 8,833 career wins. He held the career wins record for almost 10 years before Laffit Pincay Jr. surpassed him in 1999. Even in conceding the record, he was on hand to congratulate his long-time friend in beating his mark. He also won the Preakness Stakes twice and the Belmont Stakes five times. He claimed 10 national earnings titles and five total wins titles. Shoemaker retired from riding in 1990.
Tragedy marred Shoemaker's life in 1991, when an automobile accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. The jockey then served as a trainer, compiling 90 wins, until retiring from racing all together in 1997.
Two of McCarron's most vivid memories of Shoemaker involved the 1986 Kentucky Derby and the following year's Breeder's Cup.
"There are two races that stand out with him, and I will have to live with it the rest of my life because I was second," said McCarron. "The first was the 1986 Kentucky Derby when he won with Ferdinand. He (also) beat me by a nose with Ferdinand in the Breeder's Cup at Hollywood Park (in 1987). That was a defeat that took a year for me to get over. But it shouldn't have. I got beat by the best."
In winning the 1986 Derby, Shoemaker became the oldest jockey ever to win the race at age 54 as he nudged McCarron and Bold Arrangement by a nose. His other most famous Derby mount came in 1957, when, aboard Gallant Man, Shoemaker stood up at the sixteenth pole because he misjudged it as the finish line. He ended up losing by a nose to Iron Liege, ridden by Bill Hartack.
The racing legend spent most of his career racing in the Southern California circuit, which includes Santa Anita, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and Hollywood Park. Many consider this rotation the toughest in all of racing. Long-time DMTC General Manager Joe Harper remembers Shoemaker as the greatest rider during his career in the Southern California circuit, which began almost a half of a decade ago.
"I knew Bill going back to the 50s, and he certainly was an incredible guy, an incredible athlete," said Harper. "(Legendary trainer) Charlie Wittingham said this about him once, when somebody asked him what made Shoe so good: '(He) had this amazing ability where he could get the most out of a horse without the horse ever realizing he was giving it to him. He bothered a horse less than anyone I have ever seen.' All jocks have different styles of riding and some hit them with whips and some jerk them around and some force them to do things. But Bill just sat there and they performed. He was very small, very light. He could get on the back of a horse and the horse wouldn't know he was there, but the horse was under his control."
Shoemaker was born in 1931 in Fabens, a small town in West Texas. Rumor has it that he weighed less than two pounds at birth and that his grandmother kept him warm by putting him in a shoebox next to a fire. "The Shoe" eventually grew to 4-11 and weighed around 100 pounds during his riding days, which was small even by jockey standards. He started riding as a teenager and earned less than $100 a month until he started winning races. He went on to win more than $123 million in purses during his career, with about $10 million going into his pocket.
Although he was small for a jockey, Harper said he was one of the most-fit athletes in all of sports.
"A lot of these riders are small because they starve themselves, but Shoe was just a little person and when you saw him he didn't look like a guy who was on a crash diet, he just looked like a normal guy -- only little," he said. "I think that was probably very helpful to him because you are still able to maintain your strength and at that weight he was very strong."
In fact, Harper was once having dinner with an orthopedic surgeon who worked on many athletes in Southern California including some from the Los Angeles Rams (NFL) and the Lakers. He performed surgery on Shoemaker's broken leg after a spill at Santa Anita and the doctor told Harper that the jockey was in the best shape out of any athlete he had ever cut into.
"He said it took him longer to cut through the muscles on Bill Shoemaker than it did any other athlete he had worked on," said Harper. "Here's a guy who was comparing apples to oranges, you would think. But a leg is a leg and there is Bill coming out on top."
Even though the car accident left him quadriplegic, Harper said he never turned bitter. He even started the Shoemaker Foundation to help other jockeys that had been injured and had run out of insurance and worker's compensation benefits.
But what Harper remembers most is the Shoemaker that was a regular in the winner's circle, a leader in the jock's room and a practical joker all around. One of the jockey's favorite tricks was to put catsup in his fellow rider's pockets before it was time to go home for the day. "He was a practical joker, but he was always low key about it," commented Harper.
Shoemaker's final race at Del Mar turned out to be Harper's biggest payday as a race fan.
"When he retired he had his last ride here and he won the race," added Harper. "That was the most money I had ever bet on a horse, it was $100 or something.
"He did it with grace and style no matter where he was in his life, whether it was on the back of a horse or in a wheelchair. He will be missed greatly in this business. The last few years of his life were spent not being active in this industry. It is what it is today in large part because of Bill Shoemaker."
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