For 29 years, William Lee Shoemaker held the world record for total professional jockey victories.
Born in Fabens, Texas—a border town near El Paso—August 19, 1931, weighing one pound, sixteen ounces, he was not expected to live through the night. Maude Harris, Shoemaker’s grandmother, put him on a pillow in a shoebox and set it on the open door of an oven to keep him warm. Although he survived, Shoemaker was always small. He rode his first horse at seven and, after his parents divorced, moved to El Monte, California with his father. Shoemaker attended El Monte High School, where he boxed and was undefeated as an 80 pound wrestler before quitting school at 15 to work at a thoroughbred horse ranch. He mucked out stalls, working with yearlings, gained a great understanding of horses and began hanging around Hollywood Park near Los Angeles. Shoemaker served as an apprentice jockey under trainer George Reeves and raced for the first time on March 19, 1949, finishing fifth aboard Waxahachie at Golden Gate Park near Oakland. One month later, the 17-year-old Shoemaker won his first race—aboard Shafter V—and went on to win 219 times in his first year, second-most in the U.S.
In 1950, Shoemaker won 388 races, tying the all-time record for single-season wins, set in 1906. He rode nine races each weekday, 12 more on Sundays and was the top jockey in the U.S. by the time he was 20. Shoemaker rode 1,600 races in 1953, setting a new single-season record by winning 485 times. The following year, he set a winning percentage record of .304. In 1955, “Shoe” guided Swaps to victory in the Kentucky Derby. Two years later, he misjudged the finish line, standing up early and costing himself a second Derby win. Shoemaker notched his 3,000th career win in 1958. Three years later, he became one of four jockeys to win 4,000 races and surpassed the great Eddie Arcaro [Daily Dose, November 12] in career winnings with over $ 30 million. Between 1958 and 1967, Shoemaker won nine Triple Crown races and surpassed John Longden’s all-time win record with his 6,033rd victory in September 1970. It had taken Longden 40 years to establish his record—Shoemaker did it in 22. After taking the Marlboro Cup aboard Spectacular Bid in 1979, “Shoe” became the first jockey to win a one-million dollar race when he directed John Henry to victory in the inaugural Arlington Million in 1981. Shoemaker claimed his last Kentucky Derby in 1986 when, at age 54, he rode Ferdinand to victory against 18-to-1 odds.
Willie Shoemaker won 11 American Classics races in his 42 year career, including four Kentucky Derby and five Belmont Stakes victories. He won his first Derby at age 23 and his last at 54. “Silent Shoe” was a man of few words who used his smarts to win races. At a time when most jockeys pulled hard on the reins and used the whip, Shoemaker was a quiet rider with gentle hands, leading Arcaro to say, “Willie takes such a light hold of a horse that he could probably ride with silk threads.” The 4’11”, 96 pound jock rode six winners in one day six different times in his career, earned over $ 123 million and finished with 8,833 wins, including 1,009 stakes races. Shoemaker rode 40,650 mounts and was the leading money winner in ten different seasons. He rode Swaps, Northern Dancer, Ferdinand and Spectacular Bid but said Forego—whom he guided to victory in the 1976 Marlboro Cup over a muddy track at Belmont Park–was the best horse he ever rode. Bill Shoemaker trained horses after his retirement and was paralyzed from the neck down following a single-car auto accident in 1991. He won the Eclipse Award for outstanding jockey in 1981, the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 1951 and was voted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1958. Mr. Shoemaker died in October, 2003 at age 72.
On this date in 1990, William Lee Shoemaker retired after finishing fourth aboard Patchy Groundfog before over 64,500 spectators at Santa Anita Park.