The largest Handicap Day crowd in 28 years (68,474) squeezed into Santa Anita Park last Sunday afternoon, supposedly to watch an excellent field of 15 run for a purse of $255,900. But the factor that no one could measure in the attendance was how many fans had been drawn by a 4'11" jockey's quest for his 7,000th winner.
Willie Shoemaker has tucked close to $6 million in his saddlebags and has the highest winning percentage (24) of any name jockey. While he fell two winners short last weekend, he is odds-on to reach his goal when racing resumes at the Arcadia, Calif. course this Wednesday. It will be years, if ever, before another rider gets within striking distance of Shoemaker's record. His closest competitor among active jockeys—Bill Hartack, who is 44 and riding in Hong Kong—is some 2,600 wins back and aging fast.
Jockeys, more than others, grasp the significance of Shoemaker's feat. Johnny Sellers was one of those at Santa Anita marveling at Shoe's endurance. "Earlier this week," Sellers said, "I was taking a shower and began figuring how long it would take him to reach 10,000. If he rode 200 winners a year, it would take 15 more years." Shoemaker would be 59, the same age at which John Longden, who is closest to him in victories—6,026—retired. "I burst out laughing at the thought," Sellers said, "because I was at Arlington Park the day Shoe got his 3,500th. He walked in from the winner's circle and threw his whip on a bench. The other jockeys were watching him. He stretched and said, 'I hope the next 3,500 come as easy as the first 3,500.' Everyone chuckled. The notion of 7,000 wins was unbelievable."
Shoe's skill and strength lie in his hands, which are not particularly big and, in fact, appear strangely soft. Yet it is through them that he communicates with horses.
He is also, according to his competitors, a pretty good talker during a race despite his nickname, Silent Shoe. One day in Chicago, Jockey L.C. Cook, who is known for his handling of front-runners, was on the lead, working hard to keep his mount going. The horse had been five lengths in front, but suddenly Shoemaker was alongside. "Hey, Cookie," he hollered, "you're working awfully hard at that. This is the way it's supposed to be done." Shoemaker then set his horse down and drew away.
And Sellers remembers a mid-race conversation he had with Shoe: "I was on a longshot and the horse Bill was riding looked like a cinch I knew his horse had to be on the lead because her best races were run that way. Halfway through the race I noticed Shoe next to me and I was laying about eighth. The leaders were a long way off. 'John,' he said, I don't know what the hell I'm doing here. I'm supposed to be in front. The owners must be pulling their hair out.' And then he took off. He looped the field and won by six lengths. The difference between Bill Shoemaker and other riders is in his hands and patience."
To strangers, Shoemaker may seem a small, cold pile of impressive statistics. When he first began winning at Golden Gate Fields in April 1949 he was 17, and just one of 168 apprentices to break their maiden that year. The class Shoemaker graduated with was excellent, including Bill Boland, Sam Boulmetis, Joe Culmone and Ray York. Boulmetis, Culmone and York each rode more than 2,500 winners. Boland is remembered as one of only two apprentices ever to win a Kentucky Derby.
In those days Shoemaker attracted little attention. A youngster named Glen Lasswell was considered the best young rider on the Coast. Reporters who bothered to speak to Shoemaker in his first year found him uncommunicative. He was even more reticent than other young jockeys and they are not a talkative breed, silence having been pounded into them along the backstretch, where a bit of information given to the wrong person can be costly. But Shoemaker was closemouthed for other reasons.
Born prematurely in a farmhouse in Fabens, Texas in 1931, he weighed in at 2� pounds. "He's going to die," the doctor told the Shoemakers. "We'll make the arrangements in the morning." Instead, his grandmother picked the boy up and put him in a shoe box. She lit the kitchen oven and put baby and box inside, leaving the oven door ajar for air. The tot survived. Shoemaker never graduated from high school but did make the boxing team at 90 pounds and often beat youngsters 10 pounds heavier than himself. "I still have the set of gold gloves I won," he says. "They remind me of times when things weren't all good in my life."
When Shoemaker came to the track he said little because his teeth were in terrible shape and his jaw was deformed. He was too embarrassed to talk. "A lot of times I should have said something, but I couldn't bring myself to do it," he explains. "I didn't like the nickname Silent Shoe, but I wasn't going to tell anyone why I wouldn't talk."