At 4 feet 11 inches tall and 98 pounds, it didn’t look like Bill Shoemaker could lug a couple bags of groceries, let alone control a head-strong Thoroughbred Race Horse a dozen times his weight.
Still, Shoemaker personified that mysterious bond between horse and rider. He communicated with an innate light touch on the reins, coaxing the horse into the action, gentling it with his hands.
Horses would always run for Shoemaker, regardless of their Past Performances.
Said legendary Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro: “Shoe got them to run without pushing them. He takes such light hold of a horse that he could probably ride with silk threads for reins.”
With those small and delicate hands, Shoemaker could make any horse settle and put any horse where he wanted. And boy, would they run when the pint-sized jockey said go.
He rode 40,350 horses and Won with 8,833 of them (a record at the time of his retirement). He Won 11 Triple Crown races, 1,009 Stakes races, 10 national money titles and five times was the leading jockey by races Won.
Bill (Willie)Shoemaker was tagged as the greatest athlete of his generation.
A wisp of a kid, he rode 219 Winners in his rookie season (1952), second-most in the United States.
A year later Shoemaker set the world record for most Winners (485) in a year – a mark that held up for two decades. He Won purses of more than $123 million.
Known for his even temperament, Shoe’s riding style of sitting almost still on a horse was emulated by generations of jockeys.
Shoemaker’s first Kentucky Derby Victory came aboard SWAPS in 1955.
Two years later, his second Derby score was surely within his sights. Seemingly cruising to Victory aboard GALLANT MAN, he mistook the sixteenth pole for the Finish Line, stood up in the stirrups and allowed IRON LIEGE to Win by a nose.
Shoemaker rode three-time Champion SPECTACULAR BID in the horse’s final 13 races from 1979 to 1980 losing only once during that stretch.
That period included a perfect nine for nine 1980 season, culminating in a walkover in the Woodward Stakes.
In his autobiography Shoemaker (1988) he called SPECTACULAR BID the greatest horse he rode during his storied career.
In 1986, at age 54, he became the oldest jockey to Win a Kentucky Derby when he guided FERDINAND through a small opening on the rail in a ride considered his greatest ever.
A year after retiring to become a trainer, Shoemaker lost control of his Ford Bronco and careened down a 50-foot embankment along a California highway on April 8, 1991. His spinal cord was severed and he was paralyzed with little or no movement below the armpits.
But after months of rehabilitation, the indomitable Shoemaker returned to horse training at Santa Anita using a mouth-controlled wheelchair.
He retired from training in November 1997 with a record of 90 Wins in 713 starts and $3,699,439 in earnings.
He was the honorary chairman of the Paralysis Project, dedicated to improving spinal cord research and treatment, until shortly before his death at his Los Angeles home on October 12th, 2003.
“The most important thing,” he told an interviewer, “is don’t ever, ever, ever give up. A few times I didn’t think I was going to make it. But I never quit.”
Bill Shoemaker died of natural causes on October 12th, 2003 at the age of 72.