Sometimes it's what you don't do that brings the millions, the trophies, the ladies. Bill Shoemaker didn't try to turn a horse to butter with his riding whip. He didn't rattle the reins or frantically flap his legs, even if he was behind a wall of horseflesh as he entered the homestretch. Shoemaker sat so still on a moving thoroughbred that when he first came on the scene in California in 1949, track officials worried about the impression he gave: This kid, they said, looks like he's stiffing his horses.
Actually, he was unstiffing them, getting them to relax and feel good about themselves, using Dale Carnegie techniques on $3,000 claimers. It was a style born of necessity—at 4'11" and 95 pounds Shoemaker was small even for a jockey; he couldn't muscle a 1,000-pound stallion if he tried—but it worked. At the end of his first season he was the second-leading rider in the U.S. When he died in his sleep last week at age 72, after 8,833 wins and a life of ups and downs steep even by racetrack standards, he was the picture next to jockey in the dictionary.
"Horses just ran for him," says Laffit Pincay, the only rider ahead of Shoemaker on the alltime wins list. "He could take horses no one else could do anything with and make them go." Not that he specialized in second-rate stock: Shoemaker rode Gallant Man, Round Table, Sword Dancer, Northern Dancer, Damascus, Dr. Fager, Forego and John Henry, champions all. He guided Spectacular Bid ("The best I ever rode," he said) to 12 victories in the colt's final 13 starts. But he didn't need the best horse to win, or the best luck. Ferdinand, his $17.70-to-$1 shot in the 1986 Kentucky Derby, was pinched back at the start behind 15 rivals, then knocked twice into the rail before the first turn. Refusing to panic, Shoemaker convinced his colt that he was still in the hunt. Down the backstretch Ferdinand picked up momentum. When a hole suddenly opened along the rail as they turned for home, Shoemaker saw it and entered it instantly. Daylight and victory. Roses and champagne. The Shoe was 54 years old, and his beautiful third wife was shouting that she loved him.
Not every day at the races was so glorious. Although he won four Kentucky Derbys (with Swaps, Tomy Lee, Lucky Debonair and Ferdinand), the Triple Crown eluded him, and he was outdueled by Eddie Arcaro aboard Nashua in the ballyhooed 1955 match race with Swaps. Two years later Shoemaker misjudged the Churchill Downs finish line, standing up early in the stirrups, and cost Gallant Man the Derby as Iron Liege flew by. "I didn't make any excuses," Shoemaker said. He called it a "boo-boo" and moved on.
"Win or lose," says Pincay of their days in California, "we'd go out to Chasen's for drinks." Shoemaker predicted Ferdinand's Derby win to SI's Bill Nack "over drinks and dinner," Nack said, and the third paragraph of a 1977 PEOPLE profile mentions that the jockey drinks moderately, usually bourbon. Shoemaker was legally drunk the April evening in '91 when his SUV tumbled off a highway in San Dimas, Calif., leaving him with a dislocated spine and a life as a quadriplegic.
Born weighing less than two pounds, Shoemaker wasn't supposed to make it through his first night in Fabens, Texas. But his grandmother put him in a shoe-box and warmed him on the stove (or so the legend goes), and he grew strong if not much. After his parents divorced and he moved to El Monte, Calif., with his father, B.B., he planned to try out for football, but the high school didn't have size 1� cleats. So, like Red Pollard, Seabiscuit's jock, he dabbled in boxing, winning a Golden Gloves title in Los Angeles. Horses came into his life at 14 when a girl he knew suggested that he consider the then glamorous profession dominated by Arcaro, Ted Atkinson and Johnny Longden. He looked into the possibility and never looked back.
He rode 40,350 horses and won an astounding 21.9% of his races. Following an international farewell tour that ended in February 1990, Shoemaker retired from riding and set up shop as a trainer at Santa Anita. His gross earnings that year were $32,000. After the accident he persevered, arriving at the barn each day in his electric wheelchair, but his image in the racing community was sullied by his refusals to fess up to driving drunk and by his strategy of suing everyone in sight over the accident. (He eventually settled with Ford for $1 million.) Just when people should have been pulling for Shoe, he was out of favor on the backstretch.
The resentment faded, though, worn away by the sight of him coming around, smiling and talking to young riders about the tricky art of getting a racehorse to run. "A lot of people have it a lot worse than I do," he'd say, even after his training career evaporated and his third marriage failed. Before Pincay retired with 9,530 winners last April, Shoemaker would visit his old pal in the jocks' room at Santa Anita, and when Pincay said, "I like my horse in the eighth," Shoe would tell his assistant to make a note. "He liked to play the Pick Six," Pincay says, with a laugh. "And if the horse I gave him didn't win, he would never mention it, never stop smiling. That's what being around horses taught him. You take your wins and your losses and you never give up. There's always another race."