Referred to as "Bill", "Willie," and "The Shoe", William Lee Shoemaker was born in the town of Fabens, Texas. At 2.5 pounds (1.1 kg), Shoemaker was so small at birth that he was not expected to survive the night. Put in a shoebox in the oven to stay warm, he survived, but remained small, growing to 4 feet 11 inches (1.50 m) and weighing only 105 pounds (47.6 kg). His diminutive size proved an asset as he went on to become a giant in thoroughbred horse racing, despite dropping out of El Monte High School in El Monte, California.
His career as a jockey began in his teenage years, with his first professional ride on March 19, 1949. The first of his eventual 8,833 career victories came a month later, on April 20, aboard Shafter V, at Golden Gate Fields in Albany, California. In 1951, he won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award. At the age of 19, he was making so much money (as much as $2,500 each week) that the Los Angeles Superior Court appointed attorney Horace Hahn as his guardian, with the consent of his parents. Thirty years later, he won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey in the United States.
Shoemaker won eleven Triple Crown races during his career, spanning four different decades, but the Crown itself eluded him. The breakdown of these wins is as follows:
- Kentucky Derby: Swaps (1955), Tomy Lee (1959), Lucky Debonair (1965) and Ferdinand (1986)
- Preakness Stakes: Candy Spots (1963) and Damascus (1967)
- Belmont Stakes: Gallant Man (1957), Sword Dancer (1959), Jaipur (1962), Damascus (1967) and Avatar (1975)
Two of Shoemaker's most noted rides were in the Kentucky Derby. He lost the 1957 Kentucky Derby aboard Gallant Man, when he stood up in the stirrups too soon, having misjudged the finish line. Gallant Man finished second to Iron Liege, ridden by Bill Hartack. At the 1986 Kentucky Derby, Shoemaker became the oldest jockey ever to win the race (at age 54) aboard the 18-1 outsider Ferdinand. The following year, he rode Ferdinand to a victory over Alysheba in the Breeders' Cup Classic; Ferdinand later captured Horse of the Year honors.
Shoemaker rode the popular California horse Silky Sullivan, about which he is quoted as saying: "You just had to let him run his race ... and if he decided to win it, you'd better hold on because you'd be moving faster than a train."
When Shoemaker earned his 6,033rd victory in September 1970, he broke jockey Johnny Longden's record. In 1999, Shoemaker's own record of 8,833 career victories was broken by Panamanian-born Laffit Pincay Jr.; the record is currently held by Russell Baze.
Win number 8,833, Shoemaker's last, came at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Florida, on January 20, 1990 aboard Beau Genius. Two weeks later, on February 3, Shoemaker rode his last race on Patchy Groundfog, at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California. He finished fourth, in front of a record crowd, to Eddie Delahoussaye, on Exemplary Leader. All told, Bill Shoemaker rode in a record 40,350 races. In 1990, he was voted the Mike Venezia Memorial Award for "extraordinary sportsmanship and citizenship".
The Marlboro Cup of 1976 at Belmont Park proved to be maybe his greatest racing achievement, and it was upon the mighty Forego. Forego's drive started from eighth position out of eleven horses on the backstretch. It culminated with a tremendous charge through the muddy middle-of-the-track stretch run, leading to a victory by a nose over the dead-game Honest Pleasure. Bill Shoemaker's ride was a performance unmatched on any American track to this day. He was quoted as saying that Forego was the best horse he had ever ridden.
After 1990 jockey retirement
Soon after retiring as a jockey in 1990, Shoemaker returned to the track as a trainer, where he had modest success, training for such clients as Gulfstream magnate Allen Paulson and composer Burt Bacharach.
He continued to train racehorses until his retirement on Nov. 2, 1997. His final stats as a trainer were 90 wins from 714 starters and earnings of $3.7 million.
Shoemaker was involved in a solo drunk-driving car accident on April 8, 1991, in San Dimas, California, when he rolled over the Bronco II he was driving. The accident left him paralyzed from the neck down, and he thereafter used a wheelchair. Shoemaker sued Ford, and Ford settled with Shoemaker for US$1,000,000.
Shoemaker authored three murder mysteries. They were often compared to the large stable of best-selling horsey mysteries by fellow jockey/author Dick Francis. Shoemaker's Stalking Horse (1994), Fire Horse (1995), and Dark Horse (1996) all featured jockey-turned-sleuth Coley Killebrew using his racetrack experience in and about his restaurant and the horse world.
- Shoemaker, Bill and Nagler, Barney. Shoemaker (1988) Doubleday ISBN 0-385-23945-9
- ESPN story Shoemaker made racing history by Ron Flatter
- Del Mar Media Guide
- "About Golden Gate Fields." Retrieved 2012-02-07.
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Saturday, June 2, 1951, pg 11, "Shoemaker Makes Too Much Money"
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Laffit Pincay, Jr.