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"He's taught me a lot of the trickier things, like how to trap somebody behind the speed horse. Maybe he taught me too well. The other day I was on a horse named Nitouche and Bill was on a horse named Captivated II, and I dropped him off behind a dying speed horse. I tried to keep him in there as long as I could, but when I took the lead at the ⅜ths pole I was afraid he'd get loose, and he did. He hooked me at the eighth pole, and it was neck and neck the rest of the way. When we went across the finish line, I hollered, 'I think I got you, Bill,' and he gave me that little Chinaman smile of his and said, 'Don't be too sure about that.' When they posted a dead heat, Bill said to me, 'It looks like you put your mark on me, Mark.' "
If there is any diminution of Shoemaker's own skills atop half a ton of horse, it went unnoticed by those who cheered him on to his record this summer. When he came off a 13-month pause after breaking his right femur in a race at Santa Anita two years ago, everyone looked for the customary signs of staleness and fright, and found none. "I was a little stiff at first," Shoemaker recalls, "but it didn't take me long to get over that." He went three-for-three on his first day back, sneaking through a small opening on the rail to steer a horse named Racing Room to a track record performance at 6½ furlongs. But not long afterward a horse rolled on him in the paddock at Hollywood Park and damaged his pelvis and bladder. Once again Shoemaker repaired to the sidelines, and once again he was examined for signs of fear or rustiness when he returned. But his winning average—an astonishing .25 over his lifetime—has remained fairly constant.
"My agent told me I was sitting higher on the horse than before my injuries," Shoemaker says ruefully. "I said, 'Sure, but I'm a little stiffer than I was, Harry.' But that didn't last long. I'm sitting the same as ever now." The only carry-over from any of his racing injuries is a slight residual soreness from a vertebra he cracked in 1954. "Some days you'll see me kind of ease myself off the horse instead of jumping down," Shoemaker says. "That's when my back hurts me a little bit. Or maybe I'm just getting old." But no one would have pegged him for any of the problems of gerontology a few weeks ago when his horse reared up in the paddock and lost his balance and fell down while onlookers gasped and wondered if history was about to repeat itself.
Shoemaker went over backward with the horse, but somehow in midair he managed to whirl around the ribs and keep from getting pinned. As he jumped to his feet, another horse kicked out at him and missed him by a foot. After these near disasters, Shoemaker went out and rode in the race unperturbed, once again exhibiting the unbuggability that has characterized his career.
"Cool is the word for him," says Harry Silbert. "And a pro. What a pro! One day this year he won four races, and the next morning he was out working a horse at dawn. Sometimes before a meeting opens, like Santa Anita, he'll come out to the track for a week or two and work out himself, to make sure he's in perfect condition. Sure, other jocks do things like that. But wouldn't you expect Shoemaker to be taking it easier on himself as he gets older? But he doesn't, and that's why he's riding as good as he ever rode before."
"He's a paradox," says Eddie Read, assistant general manager at Del Mar. "He never seems to change. He's cool, calm, all guts. He'll do absolutely nothing to a horse if that's what's called for, or he'll send a horse through a suicidal hole if that's what's called for. Fire and ice, that's it. I can't see any change in his riding over the years. He has an uncanny ability for positioning himself in a race, especially in a distance race. He's the master of the whole situation, and yet he never seems to be doing anything up there. He doesn't scrub and rub around on the horse, like some of the jocks. He's like a little computer, sitting up there, knowing exactly when to do what, and moving the horse with little clucks and touches.
"Riding like that, Shoe doesn't take much out of a horse. The trainer gets the animal back in the same shape. It's not like a Hartack, or certain other jockeys I can think of. They'll win for you, but you might not be able to run the horse for two or three weeks because they take too much out of them. Maybe that's why Shoe was so successful with Swaps and other Rex Ellsworth horses, the two complementing each other. Ellsworth is tough on horses and Shoe is patient. If you had a combination of Ellsworth and Hartack you'd have to shoot the horse after each race, but never with Shoe."
If there is a change in the world's most successful jockey, it is only that he finds it more difficult to get up for the less important races. "It's not that I don't respect the everyday races, the cheap races," Shoemaker says in his usual deferential manner. "But those sore-legged claimers are harder to ride than the good horses.
"So I don't always get thrilled by the prospect of riding one. But the good races are still fun to ride. Any kind of a big race, a good field, nice horses—then it's fun. You're not only on a good horse, but you're surrounded by good horses and good riders, too. But in the cheap races the horses are bad, and a lot of times you have some inexperienced young riders that're coming up and don't know how to do the thing yet. That's how I got hurt so bad at Santa Anita. Some young jock in front of me ran his horse up where he shouldn't have been, and his horse clipped another horse's heels and they went down, and I was right in the middle and couldn't get away from them. Sometimes I think about that when I'm in a squeeze in one of these cheaper races. I don't know—maybe that's why I'm so free with the advice to the young jockeys around here. Maybe it's just self-defense."
Another jockey might be thinking about retirement, but the idea doesn't seem to appeal to Shoemaker. Certainly, he is financially secure. His mounts have won over $43 million, of which his own share has been $4.3 million, less Harry Silbert's cut of about $1 million. Business investments have paid off for Shoemaker, and although he lives comfortably, he does not throw money around. His personal white convertible is five years old, and when he is at a track like Del Mar, half a mile from the seaside, he slouches about in an old pair of Bermuda shorts instead of showing off the fancy wardrobe that hangs in the closets of his luxury apartment in Beverly Hills. There will be no benefit racing cards for Mr. and Mrs. William Shoemaker when they enter their dotage.