Hall Of Fame Jockey Willie Shoemaker Dies At 72
Hall of Fame jockey Willie Shoemaker dies at 72
SAN MARINO, Calif. (AP) — Hall of Fame jockey Bill Shoemaker, whose 8,883 victories are the second most in thoroughbred racing history, died Sunday. He was 72.
Shoemaker died in his sleep at his suburban home near Santa Anita racetrack, according to longtime friend and trainer Paddy Gallagher. He had been paralyzed from the neck down since 1991, when his car veered off the freeway in San Dimas, Calif., about 30 miles from Los Angeles.
Only 4-foot-11, the superb athlete known simply as "The Shoe" throughout his career, rode for 41 years, most of them in Southern California, considered to be the most competitive circuit in America.
In 1986, at age 54, he became the oldest jockey to win a Kentucky Derby when he guided Ferdinand along a small opening on the rail and on to victory in a ride considered one of the greatest ever.
That win came 21 years after his last previous Derby win, aboard Lucky Debonair in 1965. He won America's most famous race four times, including 1959 with Tomy Lee and 1955 with Swaps.
Perhaps his most famous Derby ride was one he lost, in 1957.
Dueling toward the finish line at Churchill Downs were Gallant Man, ridden by Shoemaker, and Iron Liege, ridden by Bill Hartack.
At the sixteenth pole, Shoemaker stood up, mistaking it for the finish line. He sat back down immediately but Gallant Man lost by a nose.
Shoemaker received a 15-day suspension from the stewards.
But Gallant Man's owner, Ralph Lowe, found no fault and gave Shoemaker $5,000 and a new car. Five weeks later, Shoemaker rode Gallant Man to an eight-length victory in the Belmont Stakes.
His last race came on Feb. 3, 1990, after a yearlong tour of racetracks in North America to exhibit his skill to fans who had never seen him. A crowd of 64,573 showed up at Santa Anita to see him and his mount, Patchy Groundfrog, finish fourth in a race that was televised nationally.
All told, in his 41 years, Shoemaker rode in a record 40,350 races. His 8,883 victories meant he was in the money about half the times he got on a horse.
Shoemaker was born in Fabens, Texas, on Aug. 19, 1931, so small he was kept as an infant in a shoebox near a fire to stay warm.
He boxed and wrestled in high school but decided to become a jockey because of his size. He dropped out of school to ride for $75 a month plus room and board at a La Puente, Calif., horse ranch.
Shoemaker won his first race April 20, 1949, at Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco aboard Shafter V. His final victory came Jan. 20, 1990, at Gulfstream Park aboard Beau Genius.
In 1951, still an apprentice, he was the second-leading rider in the nation with 219 victories. He led the country in victories five times in the next 10 years.
Although known mostly as Willie, he always preferred to be called Bill. The preference was obvious by the initials emblazoned on the tack box and gates throughout his barn.
"My wife likes that better than Willie, so that's what we did," he said at the time. "If that's the most important thing I have to worry about, I'll be very happy."
He was emphatic at that time when asked if he missed riding.
"No, I went 40 years," he said. "That's long enough. It's time to do something else."
Shoemaker won his first race as a trainer with Tempest Cloud, an upset winner who broke her maiden in the fourth race at Hollywood Park in June 1990.
Two days after being released from a hospital where he underwent rehabilitation after the 1991 car accident, Shoemaker returned to train at Santa Anita. He retired from training in 1997, after winning 90 races and nearly $3.7 million.
Shoemaker was a sporadic visitor to Southern California racetracks in recent years. He was present at Hollywood Park on Dec. 10, 1999, when Laffit Pincay Jr. broke Shoemaker's record for victories with No. 8,834. Pincay was forced to retire in April after breaking his neck in an accident at Santa Anita.
Shoemaker loved to ride — at any time.
In 1965, he was returning to his hotel from a party at 4:30 a.m. on the day of the Kentucky Derby. He was accompanied by a friend, who had a horse stabled at Churchill Downs.
The friend suggested they go to the track and that Shoemaker work out the horse. He did, wearing a tuxedo, then 12 hours later rode Lucky Debonair to his third Derby victory.
Shoemaker is survived by his former wife, Cindy, and only child Amanda.