Steady, spirited, good hands on dry track or mud. If it has four hooves and a mane, he can win with it.
If there were a racing form on jockeys, that would be the entry for Willie Shoemaker. In 28 years he has ridden nearly 7,200 winners, not only an all-time record but almost twice as many as any other jockey now working—and worth $61 million in purses.
The expectation is high every time Shoemaker mounts up. When he loses, fans get furious, even pelt him with ice cubes as he walks to the jockeys’ room. He shrugs. “I don’t pay that much attention to the booing,” he says. “If people bet their money on me, they’re entitled.”
At the end of a day of racing, the 45-year-old Shoemaker goes to his house in Beverly Hills, or to the one he’s renting in Palm Springs while his condominium is being redesigned (with pool, Jacuzzi and lower kitchen cabinets that he can reach). He plays tennis or backgammon or simply surrenders to the TV set (Kojak and wildlife documentaries are his favorites). He drinks moderately—usually bourbon—and because he’s careful about his diet, never worries about his weight. Shoemaker has been close to 100 pounds since he was 16.
It is his height that intrigues most people. Yet he is remarkably unself-conscious about being 4’11”. “I don’t know how it feels to be small because I don’t know what it’s like to be tall,” he says. “People like Wilt Chamberlain have a worse problem than I do, anyway. Everybody turns around to look at him. They don’t even see me.”
Shoemaker’s body has, of course, been more than incidental to his reputation as the greatest jockey in history, not to mention his earning some $6 million from his share of purses alone. (Though his winnings have bought him oil wells and a ranch, he is not very interested in money. “I have an investment firm that handles all that,” he explains.) Physically, Shoemaker is blessed with one great advantage, his hands—strong as a blacksmith’s, gentle as a surgeon’s. “Bill bothers a horse less than any other jockey. When he tells a horse it’s time to go,” trainer Mish Tenney once said, “it’s done smoothly. Just a little shuffle of his hands, a little snip of the whip, and Bill allows the horse to make the move in time.” Shoemaker’s agent, Harry Silbert, has watched his client ride for 28 years. “If ever a man has a built-in speedometer, it’s Bill. He can hit a clock almost perfectly.”
Shoemaker’s feeling for horses is legendary. He talks about them as if they were friends. Swaps? “A very special horse to me, the first really good horse I ever rode.” “I had good rapport with Damascus.” “I liked Ack Ack.”
“I try to win a lot of races,” Shoemaker says, “but what I really enjoy is getting on young horses and developing them. It’s like raising your kid and he turns out to be President.” Willie Shoemaker is a taciturn man who is speaking from the depths of his soul. “I guess I was born with those feelings. Those are things nobody can teach.”
Shoemaker was born with something else: a stubborn will to live. A month premature, he weighed only 2½ pounds. The doctor in Fabens, Texas did not expect him to survive the night.
Shoemaker’s maternal grandmother put the baby in a shoe box and stuck him in the oven with the heat turned down and the door open. The makeshift incubator worked. He was christened Billy Lee.
His father (who was 5’11”, his wife 5’3″) was a cotton mill worker and handyman who moved the family around during the Depression looking for work. When Billy was 7, he went to live with his grandparents on a cattle and sheep ranch near Abilene. In his new autobiography, The Shoe (Rand McNally), the jockey recalls that riding his grandfather’s horse to the end of the road to get the mail was “my big thing for the day.”
While Billy was with his grandparents, his own parents divorced. At 10, he and his brother, Lonnie, a year younger, went to live in California with their father after he remarried. At El Monte Union High School Shoemaker wanted to try out for football and basketball but couldn’t find cleats that were small enough for his size 1½ feet. Instead he became a wrestler and a Golden Gloves award-winning boxer.
One day a girl in his class suggested he become a jockey. “What’s that?” Shoemaker asked, but soon a friend of hers found Billy a job mucking out stables and exercising horses on a Thoroughbred farm in La Puente. At 16 he quit school to work full-time. When he was considered too small to be a jockey, he moved to a Southern California track, Del Mar, for a chance to ride.
His first race, March 19, 1949, was on a filly called Waxahachie. He finished fifth. The winner, prophetically enough, was ridden by Johnny Long-den, a cagey veteran who cut off the young jockey coming out of the starting gate. (Shoemaker eventually avenged himself when he broke Long-den’s record for career wins in 1970.)
A month later Shoemaker had his first trip to the winner’s circle aboard his third mount, Shatter V. Before the year was out, even though he was still technically an apprentice, he had won 219 races—the second highest among all jockeys in the country. The next year he came in first 388 times, tying for the No. 1 spot. In 1951 his mounts won $1.3 million, best in the country, and by 1953 he was leading in both wins and money.
As a sports personality, Shoemaker was less of a triumph. Partly because of crooked teeth, since repaired, the young man was so shy he acquired the nickname “Silent Shoe.” One track publicity man grumbled, “You might as well talk to a potted plant as bother to interview him.”
Reserved as he still is, Shoemaker has made a number of celebrity friends outside racing. He plays tennis with Johnny Carson and composer Burt Bacharach (whose horses Shoe often rides), and golfs (a 10 handicap) with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Los Angeles Rams general manager Don Klosterman. Shoemaker’s house is a popular rendezvous for his pals. He encourages them to stick around at night for cards and backgammon even though he sneaks off to bed after watching the 11 o’clock news.
His second wife, Babbs, 44, a self-described “domestic engineer,” “does most of the socializing,” Shoemaker says. They met in 1958, when both were uneasily married to other people—Shoe to a woman he wed as a teenager, Babbs to a Texas oilman-rancher. After their divorces, they met again and were married in 1961 in Babbs’s Pasadena apartment. She always calls him William “because when I called him Bill four people would turn around.” They have three children from their first marriages, all adopted—her son, Mitch, 20, and his two children, John, 21, and Sheri, 19. Babbs says, “He has a very good rapport with children. He really becomes like them.” Shoemaker observes, “The children’s level is sometimes a lot better.” Actress Greer Garson, who co-owns Royal Derby II, Shoemaker’s mount in his 7,000th win, recalls the night one of the Shoemakers’ poodles gave birth to a single frail puppy by cesarean section. “Shoe was up all night, cradling the little creature in his hands. He is an unusual combination of strength and gentleness.”
Just before he and Babbs married she learned she was allergic to horses. That means Shoemaker must shower and change clothes before he enters the house after any contact with the animals. Babbs rarely goes to the track. Nonetheless, Shoemaker has scarcely lacked for fans there. He has been a national sports hero since 1955, when he rode Swaps to a Kentucky Derby victory, his first of three. In the Derby two years later, Shoemaker committed “a goof” (his term) that became part of racing history. On Gallant Man, he was challenging Bill Hartack for the lead when he mistook the 1/16th pole for the finish line and stood up in the irons. Shoemaker realized his mistake almost instantly and tried to recover, but lost the race by a nose.
“At that time,” he recalls, “I wasn’t so cocky anybody would notice, but to myself I was getting to feel I was pretty good. That mistake made a humble guy of me.”
It did not affect his performance. In October 1964 he joined Longden as the second rider to win 5,000 races. He would have hit 6,000 sooner but for two serious accidents. The first came in early 1968 at Santa Anita when his mount, Bel Bush, went down in a collision on the track and kicked Shoemaker, breaking the jockey’s right leg. The fracture was so serious that he was sidelined for more than a year. When Shoemaker finally returned to Santa Anita on February 11, 1969 and won all of his three races, he went home and cried with joy and relief.
Barely three months later Shoemaker was in the hospital again after Ponna’s Day flipped over backwards and landed on him in the paddock at Hollywood Park in California. Though his pelvis was broken in five places and his bladder ruptured (and Shoe was grimly convinced he would never ride again), he was up before the year was out.
In August 1970 he surpassed the career record of 6,032 wins held by Longden, who had retired after 40 years. Shoemaker has graciously pointed out that Longden raced under different conditions than he has had. Longden, now a trainer at Santa Anita, says, “Bill is a gentleman on and off the track. He’s got quality.”
In a profession where competition is intense and sometimes hostile, Shoemaker (known around the track as “Little Foot”) is unusually popular with his fellow jockeys. One explanation: “He never gloats over a win, never complains about a defeat.” Two-time Derby winner Angel Cordero says: “We kid around with him, and he takes a lot. I’ve never seen him mad or blow his top. I think of him as a guy with class.” Shoemaker is not likely to be so esteemed by the small corps of female jockeys, however. “They haven’t had the opportunity, most of them, to do it right,” he says. “I’d rather ride against 12 women any time. The men are stronger and tougher and ride better. Not that I’m knocking women. Sooner or later some old broad will be heavyweight boxing champion.”
Shoemaker will soon get a leg up on his 30,000th mount, nearly a fourth of which have been winners. (Jockeys consider winning one race in six more than respectable.) And while he has been somewhat erratic in recent years, he won more money in 1976 than ever—$3.8 million. Says longtime friend Burt Bacharach: “I have seen him go through stages when people said he was finished, but he always comes out of them.”
Shoemaker himself is laying no odds on when he will retire and, perhaps, start his own stable. “If I feel I can’t do justice to my horses and the people I ride for, it wouldn’t be fair for me to go on riding,” he says. “I could quit five years from now, two years from now, or tomorrow. I’m just riding day to day.”
Meanwhile, he still heeds some old advice: “My grandfather used to say, ‘Anytime you lose your head, your ass goes with it.’ I never forgot that.”