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In Memoriam: Legendary Jockey Bill Shoemaker

Bill Shoemaker died in his sleep at his home near Los Angeles. Shoemaker won 8,833 horse races, including 11 Triple Crown events. Jay Hovdey, columnist for the Daily Racing Form and friend of Shoemaker, remembers the remarkable career of a man who helped make the heydays of horse racing.

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  • SPORTSCASTER:

    Nearing the wire, it's Ferdinand in front. Here he comes. Shoemaker wins the derby by two!

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In 1986, Bill Shoemaker was 54 years old when he won his fourth Kentucky Derby, the oldest jockey ever to win the race.

  • BILL SHOEMAKER:

    The highlight of my career was Ferdinand winning the Kentucky Derby in 1986. I have had a lot of highlights, but I think that one was the icing on the cake.

  • SPORTSCASTER:

    In the first two strides the favorite grabs the lead. He's destined to hold it all the way.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He spent four decades making those highlights, riding his first race in 1949, competing in more than 40,000 races overall. He would win more than 8,800 of them, second most in thoroughbred history.

    William Lee Shoemaker weighed in at under two pounds at his birth on a small Texas farm. As an adult, he was 4'11" and under 100 pounds. A celebrity later in life, he once posed with the wrestler known as Andre the Giant. Known for his rapport and handling of horses, Shoemaker finished in the top three in nearly half his races. In all, his mounts earned more than $123 million. Shoemaker retired from competitive racing in 1990, at age 58. The following year, a car accident left him paralyzed, but he continued to train horses from his wheelchair. His horses won 90 races.

  • BILL SHOEMAKER:

    I think it's more satisfying, especially when you take a young horse and you develop him and bring him up like I did.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Throughout his career, Shoemaker's home base was the Santa Anita racetrack near Los Angeles. Yesterday, jockeys and fans there paid him tribute. ( Applause ) Bill Shoemaker died in his sleep this weekend. He was 72 years old.

    Joining me now is Jay Hovdey, an author and columnist for the "Daily Racing Form," and a friend of Bill Shoemaker. He is also married to the hall of fame jockey Julie Krone. What made Bill Shoemaker special as a jockey?

  • JAY HOVDEY:

    Well, Jeffrey I would have to call Bill Shoemaker a true American original. There was no one like him before and certainly there hasn't been anything like him since and probably never will be. Especially in terms of his impact on the sport and the kind of athlete he was. He was small even for a jockey but he defied that and defied a lot of other conventions to end his career at the very top of the game.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Over and over again today I read about his feel for the horses. That's what everybody seemed to talk about. One former and famous jockey Eddie Acaro said Shoemaker had the finest hands in the game. What does that mean?

  • JAY HOVDEY:

    Well, another Great Hall of fame jockey and a colleague of shoe's, a fellow competitor for many years, he liked to describe the thing that a jockey should be doing is staying out of the horse's way as best as possible.

    In other words, there's a lot for the horse to be worried about and concerned about out there and for a jockey to be moving around, pulling on the reins, working with the horses mouth too much, that's only going to cause the horse to perform sub par. What Shoemaker did, he had an innate light touch, a very sensitive touch with his hands. The hands were on the reins, the reins were on the bit and the bit is in the horse's mouth. That's the way Shoemaker communicated in a very gentle, very insinuating kind of commands that the horse needed and responded to.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    At the same time there's a lot of athleticism involved. I think most people don't have a good feel for what a jockey does during a race.

  • JAY HOVDEY:

    Well, it's amusing when debates come up about are jockeys athletes? I've watched them perform for years. Believe me, pound for pound they have some of the finest athletes in terms of hand-eye coordination, in terms of strength in relation to their overall weight, in terms of the quick twitch reactions that are necessary.

    We also have to remember that jockeys have to make their decisions at 35 to 40 miles an hour, depending on the speed of the race and the nature of the race. They have to make it over all different kinds of terrain. And, well, quite frankly we know the frailty of the racehorse means that every step could be that horse's last. And they could take the jockey with them.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Shoemaker did all this at a very high level for a very long time, including, as we said, winning the derby at the age of 54. How did he do so well for so long?

  • JAY HOVDEY:

    Well, a lot of it was his natural light weight. There are so many great jockeys who have to pull weight, have to maintain like 113, 114, 115 pound riding weight and, you know, 125 or 130-pound body. And Shoemaker never had that problem so he could always eat what he wanted.

    He was always at the top of his caloric intake so he had the energy all the time. More than that, he was also very lucky. He didn't have any major injuries until he was well into his 40s. Then he had a couple pretty serious ones back to back. But his resilience and his overall health was able to let him bounce back time after time.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's probably fair to say that even for people for decades even for people who didn't know much about horseracing, one name they would know would be Bill or Willie Shoemaker. He really achieved a great deal of celebrity, didn't he?

  • JAY HOVDEY:

    That happened to me just today. A young woman said I don't know much about horse racing but I know who Bill Shoemaker is. That speaks a lot. He came along at a time in this country when truly the major sports were major league baseball, works boxing and horse racing, the NFL, the NBA, those were in their infancy really. If you were the leading jockey in the country winning Kentucky Derbies and riding champions, you were a true celebrity. Bill lived that celebrity life very definitely.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What can you tell us about Bill Shoemaker the man?

  • JAY HOVDEY:

    Well, he was a very unpretentious guy. He didn't wear his celebrity on his sleeve at all. He was known as a… the kind of competitor that would always give the other guy a break, didn't take any cheap shots. He was also possibly one of the world's most accomplished practical jokers. There wasn't too many jockeys that he rode against that didn't at one time or another get a riding boot full of shaving cream or a little dollop of shaving cream on the top of their helmet as they went out for an important race or maybe have their boots glued to the bench before they went out for an important race. Every time they looked around there was this little guy named Shoemaker walking away giggling.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Sounded like he enjoyed life. I don't know if this story is correct. During one Derby week he had promised to give a horse a workout at dawn. He showed up in his tuxedo having been out all night.

  • JAY HOVDEY:

    Right. That's part of the Shoemaker lore. He definitely, he knew how to play hard in his younger days and he also hit the mark whenever he was called on in the morning or the afternoon. But in the last decades of his life, he was very much a family man and his pride and joy his daughter Amanda was the center of his universe.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Jay Hovdey, thank you very much for joining us.

  • JAY HOVDEY:

    Thank you, Jeffrey.

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