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"Shhhh," said Ed. "You're gonna scare the horse." Bill reached over, grabbed the pony's mane and jumped, pulling himself aboard. "I liked to have a fit," Ruby says. "So I just froze there and watched him. He grabbed the mane and kicked his little legs, and the horse just walked around the corral with him. He was holdin' on to that horse and grinnin' like I don't know what. He just wasn't afraid of anything."
Certainly not Tommy Campbell, an uncle who made a kind of career of harassing the boy. Campbell locked him in the tool shed one day. He had just told Ruby about it, rather smugly, when she saw Bill turning the corner behind the shed. "He only thought he locked me in there," said Bill. "I dug my way out." He had burrowed out beneath the back wall. "He dug himself out like a dog," she says.
Shoemaker brought that unflappable calm—and that knack for getting out of trouble—to every racetrack he rode on. Few jockeys, if any, have ridden neater on a horse—hands back with a long hold, sitting ever so still. And few have had his ability to keep a horse out of trouble, to find the surest way home, to rate a horse, to control him with the subtlest flick of his wrist and hands, to slip-slide out of traffic and hold a horse together in a drive. Eddie Arcaro used to say that Shoemaker could ride a horse with silken threads for reins.
Shoemaker was a sensation almost from the start—his first win came on Shafter V at Golden Gate Fields on April 20, 1949—the heir apparent to Arcaro among the sport's legends, but he had his share of adversity. One episode is legend by now. In the 1957 Kentucky Derby, riding Gallant Man, Shoemaker was locked in a struggle with Iron Liege and Bill Hartack, when he stood up briefly, mistaking the 16th pole for the finish line. Gallant Man never really lost a beat, but he may have hesitated an instant at a moment when he couldn't afford to. Iron Liege won it by a whisker.
A rider of less resilience might not have survived the gaffe, but Shoemaker did, coming back to win the Belmont on Gallant Man. In the ensuing years he was preeminent, taking the money-winning title in 1958 for the fourth time in his career, and then every year thereafter through 1964, when young Braulio Baeza came along.
As Shoemaker neared the 70s, though riding as well as ever on both coasts, a malaise set in. In 1967, the year he rode Damascus to the Horse of the Year title, the first year in Shoe's career in which his mounts earned more than $3 million, for the first time in his life he felt his enthusiasm waning. Ever since he had ridden Swaps to record-smashing victories in 1956, his mounts had earned at least $2 million annually, but there had been a certain evenness to his career. "Maybe it was getting boring to me," he says. "I'd been doing it so long by then, riding all kinds of races all the time. It wasn't that I was up and down. I was like on an even keel all the time. If maybe I'd had some variety in there, maybe if I'd done bad in there and couldn't get things going, it might not have happened."
But 1968, the year he approached with a yawn, brought more variety than he had reckoned on. All through his career, despite occasional mishaps and spills. Shoemaker had never had a serious injury. In January at Santa Anita he suffered a badly broken femur when his horse, Bel Bush, fell and accidentally kicked him. Doctors inserted a rod in his leg to keep it together. "We couldn't get a rod small enough at our hospital," one of the surgeons, Dr. Robert Kerlan, says. "We had to get one from Children's Hospital." The 13-month convalescence was a kind of agony that Shoemaker had never before had to endure. "I just went crazy," he says. "I realized how much I enjoyed riding because I couldn't do it. I'd been taking it for granted. Anytime I wanted to do it, I could do it; anytime I didn't want to, I didn't have to. But when I couldn't do it, that put a different light on the whole picture. It made me realize what an idiot I was, thinking the way I did. That broken leg turned out to be good for me."
He came back in February of 1969, but not for long. On April 30, a filly flipped over backward in the paddock at Hollywood Park, throwing him and pinning him against a hedge. The accident crushed his pelvis, tore his bladder and damaged nerves in his leg. "It was what we call a Humpty-Dumpty injury," Kerlan says. "You know, 'All the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't....' His pelvis was like a large dinner plate that had been broken in a lot of pieces. There wasn't much to set. There was no way to open this up and put it back together. He was put in traction until it showed some evidence of healing. It was a tough injury."
Shoemaker was out another three months and though horsemen wondered whether he would ever ride again, "There was never any doubt in my mind that I would come back," he says. "I accepted it. I know a lot of people thought that that would be the end of me and my career. But I never had that feeling."
In 1970, to much hoopla, he won his 6,033rd horse race, passing Johnny Longden as the winningest rider in the history of the sport. Shoemaker stands 4'11" and wears a 2D shoe—and for all his career his weight has hovered around 95 pounds. He has never had to do battle with his weight, as Longden did in the last years of his career, never had to face the problem that seems to consume so many riders as they near 40—heading for the sweatbox at noon with towels wrapped around their necks. So, as Shoemaker turned the corner of his third decade as a rider, there was reason to believe, barring injuries, that he could go on almost indefinitely—for as long as he wanted to ride, for as long as the reflexes remained, for as long as he stayed fit.