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Soon the ride will be over. This Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita, the old master will climb into the saddle and circle the racetrack, competitively at least, for the last time. And what place could be more fitting? After all, 322 of his barely credible total of 1,009 stakes wins over the past 41 years were earned at the elegant California track in the shadow of the San Gabriel mountains.
But not all of the 47 other tracks that William Shoemaker has visited over the past nine months, in what must be the most cosmopolitan leave-taking in the history of sports, are as stylish as Santa Anita. Oh, true, the Shoe bid adieu to princesses and dukes at Royal Ascot in England, but more often his farewell tour has seen him taking a ballyhooed last ride at dusty little places like, well, Sunland Park in New Mexico.
That's where America's greatest jockey has spent much of this particular winter's afternoon, playing hand after hand of casino in the kind of place in which he feels most at home—the deep-fried ambience of the jockeys' cafeteria. So far, he has had a less than distinguished day on the track, if not at the card table—a couple of fifth-place finishes in cheap claiming races.
Now the get-ready bell sounds for the 10th, the feature race, and the jocks shuffle into the next room to dress. "These?" asks Shoe, holding up a set of pink silks. He wriggles into them, sits down and jams his helmet onto his crossed knee—as he has done many thousands of times before—the better to hook on his goggles. In the 58-year-old eyes, there is a touch of stoic weariness. "This is my last shot today, right?" he asks. "And then maybe we can go get a little toddy?"
All the same, the day has proved special. Shoemaker was born barely 30 miles from here, in Fabens, Texas, and, right through the afternoon at Sunland, his kin have been lining up, proud of him beyond the bounds of decorum. Here's Norma Gonzalez, for instance, announcing to assembled racegoers, "Hey, he's my first cousin, for God's sake! We had the same grandmother—Maudie!"
That, of course, was Maudie Harris, who on the night of Aug. 19, 1931, had hurried to put the barely viable slip of life that was William Shoemaker, less than two pounds in weight, into a shoe box and onto the lid of a warm oven, thereby proving wrong the doctor who had said the infant would not make it through the night. A myth, say some, but the story's truth is confirmed by Shoemaker himself, who insists that it was a large shoe box. "Hell," he says, "I was a full 10� inches at birth."
Shoemaker's uncle Art Harris has shown up at Sunland too. He recalls how Maudie passed away last April at age 98 and tells of the moment he first knew Bill would be famous. "He was picking cotton one day in Fabens, young teenager he was, and he said to my grandfather, 'There's got to be a better way of making a living than this.' " ("A real ornery little bastard I must have been," mutters Shoemaker.)
And there's an elderly lady who almost trumps them all. "I used to baby-sit him," says Opal Bell, but the crowd is thick, and she loses her place to one Marlene Anderson.
"I knew Bill before ever he was racing!" says Marlene. "I remember his first car. Black Chevy, wasn't it, Bill?" She is clutching the print of a photo she has owned for more than 40 years now, one of those stilted track photos with Shoemaker aboard a horse called Best Judgment, who won the fifth at Del Mar that day, Aug. 6, 1949. "I said I'd keep it until he was rich and famous," she says, "and I was right, wasn't I?"
Well, she was. And when the day ends, though Shoemaker misses out in the big race, making the early running but slipping back to fourth at the wire, the jockey is richer by some $10,000, the appearance money he has picked up for the trip to Sunland Park. Shoemaker's losses on the track are a bit of a disappointment for the fans, all right, but not for the management of this tiny facility that pulls in maybe 2,000 people four times a week.