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Derby Day Boy, a little-known horse in a highly forgettable race, carried 117 pounds, and the most important of them were the 98 belonging to the corpus of an aging jockey named William Shoemaker. Derby Day Boy was boxed in at the head of the stretch—so thoroughly sealed off on the rail, in fact, that a trailing jockey taunted Shoemaker, "Come on: let him run," knowing full well that Derby Day Boy would have no place to run but up the west ends of the two eastbound horses in front of him. Then a thin corridor of light opened up between the two lead horses, and Shoemaker yanked Derby Day Boy hard to the right and guided him straight for the opening, like a halfback going through the two hole. A few minutes later he rode his horse into the winner's circle and dismounted as a railbird tore up tickets and chirped at him: "The record's inevitable, so why take chances like that?"
"The record" was Johnny Longden's—6,032 winning rides atop the knobby vertebrae of racehorses. Last week Bill Shoemaker, racing's premier rider, steered Derby Day Boy and seven other horses to victory at the sunny little California track called Del Mar, and when all the arithmetic was finished he had equaled the record that many had thought would stand forever. At 39 and in his 22nd year of racing. Shoemaker will now, undoubtedly, pull steadily ahead of the retired Longden. If there was someone waiting in the wings to surpass Shoemaker, he was waiting very quietly. Shoemaker's nearest active competitor is Bill Hartack, with 3,995 wins, and behind him is Walter Blum, with 3,460. If Shoemaker rides another six or seven years, which would surprise no one, including himself, he will hang up his tack with something in the neighborhood of 7,500 wins, and that record should stand for decades, just as surely as you can say Babe Ruth.
Was Shoemaker excited? Well—no. "That's just not my style," the graying jockey explained. "I mean—I get excited inside, but I don't show it. To tell you the truth, I'm a little sorry in a way. That record's the most important thing in the world to Johnny Longden, so I have a little sad feeling about equaling it. The perfect thing would have been if I could have gone on winning races, hundreds and hundreds of races, but Johnny could somehow have held onto his record. That would have been beautiful." Coming from any number of other jockeys, the remark would have been rank and phony. Coming from Shoemaker, it was merely consistent with his attitude over two decades of racing. He came up as a deferential, shy, unexcitable stoic of 17, and he remains a deferential, shy, unexcitable stoic at 39. "That's the whole secret of his career," said a close friend as the record-equaling ride approached last week. "He doesn't push. He takes things one by one, as they come, an hour at a time, a race at a time."
"Bill excited?" said Del Mar Vice President Clement Hirsch. "Are you kidding? Bill's the iceman. He doesn't get excited, he doesn't get mad, he just wins races."
"Oh, he gets sore once in a while," says Shoemaker's lifelong agent, Harry Silbert, a Guys and Dolls character from Brooklyn who views life through dark glasses and cigar smoke and smacks you on the knee when he makes a point. "Everybody gets mad. If you don't get mad you ain't human, right? (Whack.) But he don't cuss nobody out. He keeps it to himself. He don't hold no grudge. The beauty part of it is, he's been riding with these other jocks for 21, 22 years. Now nine out of 10 guys like that, you'd find at least four or five guys hate him with a passion, right? (Crack.) Well, nobody hates Bill. Nobody. You can go all over the country and you won't find an enemy of Bill Shoemaker. The worst argument we ever had? Him and me? Well, Bill will say in a roughish voice, 'I'd rather not ride that horse, Harry,' and I'll say, 'O.K.,' and that's the worst argument we ever have. (Bang.) And that's about once a year. Oh, he's a mean one."
In 1949 Harry Silbert took Shoemaker's book, and at the time neither Silbert nor the rest of the horse-racing fraternity was particularly impressed by the silent 98-pound apprentice boy. Shoemaker was the product of a broken home, which sometimes turns a child inward, and his mouth was full of misshapen and maloccluded teeth, factors that tended to make him keep his mouth shut. When he won his first race on Shatter V, a Golden Gate track official tried to interview him, but a deep silence followed the first question: "How old are you?" Five months later Shoemaker bumped into the same official in the paddock and blurted out, "Eighteen."
If Shoemaker is somewhat quicker on the response these days, and less reluctant to open his mouth now that oral surgeons have effected massive repairs, he nevertheless seems to be happiest in his own company and his own counsels. His wife Babbs is highly gregarious, and the Shoemakers' summer beach house at Del Mar rings with the shouts of dozens of guests, famous and ordinary, who wander in and out at all hours. "That's the way we prefer it," Babbs says. "We live like that. We have open house all the time." But as the evenings wear on, one is likely to find Shoemaker, all 59½ inches of him, off to one side nursing a drink or totally invisible in the middle of a group of neighborhood children, with whom he has a mysterious and total rapport.
"He's like the Pied Piper," says Dan Smith of the Del Mar racing staff. "I was trying to get my 3-year-old son David to go into the water the other day, and he wouldn't think of it. Then Shoe lay down in the surf and said, 'Come on, David, swim out to me,' and the kid did it. I guess he looked at Bill and he said to himself, 'If that kid can do it, so can I.' "
The one place where William Shoemaker seems completely and totally at home is the track, where he functions as a sort of elder statesman, settler of disputes and all-round confidant of troubled jockeys. The role is odd, for Shoemaker has almost never been a troubled jockey himself. In his apprentice year of 1949 he was the leading jockey at Del Mar. He started fast and still hasn't slowed, but a jockey in a slump seems to depress Shoemaker vicariously. "He worries more about me than he does about himself," says Ray Bianco, a rider who broke his hand several months ago and hasn't won a race since. "He keeps trying to encourage me. He says, 'Don't worry, Ray, you're not doing anything wrong or doing anything different. You're just not getting stock that can win.' Maybe he's just bulling me along, trying to cheer me up, but he keeps me going, and I know eventually I'll get out of this slump if he keeps on helping me.'
Early in the Del Mar meeting, when he was still 30 or 40 races away from Longden's record, Shoemaker began watching and helping Ronald Mark, a 22-year-old apprentice, and Mark has since moved into the top 10 jockeys at the track. "He started telling me when I made mistakes," the ebullient young Mark said, "and naturally, when a Bill Shoemaker talks, you listen. Like the other day, I went through a tight hole on the inside, and later on he said to me, real quietlike, 'Don't do that, because that's an awful good way to get killed.' When I did it I knew it was wrong, but when Bill told me, I really knew it was wrong.