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He had always taken care of himself. Then in the early '70s he found himself in a kind of trap, a blind switch from which he couldn't escape. He was married to a woman he no longer loved and didn't want to live with anymore—a woman, he says, whose social aspirations, outlook and interests were incompatible with his. He says this not to condemn but to explain what happened to him in the early '70s, when he lost his desire to ride, began declining to work horses in the morning, at times called in sick to the jocks' room and began to think he had had it as a rider.
Shoemaker was first married in 1950, when he was only 18 and in his second year as a rider, to Virginia McLaughlin, whom he had met through a fellow jockey. The marriage lasted for 11 years, and they had two adopted children. They were divorced in 1961. "We were too young," says Shoemaker.
Then Shoemaker married Babbs Bayer of Texas, whom he had met a few years before. "Bright, pretty and clever," Shoemaker says. Bill and Babbs lived first in Pasadena, then San Marino, a fashionable, conservative community not far from Santa Anita. In the mid-'60s they made a big move socially, going to live on the 31st floor of a high-rise in Beverly Hills.
Bill Shoemaker was a celebrity. In his soft-spoken, easygoing kind of way, he had emerged as the embodiment of thoroughbred racing on the Coast, as recognizable in Southern California as any movie star. Racetrackers admired him to the point of reverence. Horse players called him "The Shoe" and bet him with both hands. Latin bettors took to calling him "El Zapatero," The Shoemaker, and also "El Maestro," The Teacher. And as the years went by they spoke of him as "El Viejo," The Old One, but always respectfully.
In Beverly Hills, of course, the Shoemakers were on all the invitation lists. Babbs was stunning in fur coats and expensive clothes and beautiful jewelry. She and Bill were seen at the right places. Babbs got into charity work, which is the thing to do in Beverly Hills, and the couple was frequently mentioned in society columns.
Shoemaker, however, had always thought of himself as a simple, uncomplicated man of simple, uncomplicated tastes. He was, after all, the shy little son of a former sharecropper who had grown up poor in the Depression in Texas and made it rich in the Golden Land. Now here he was in Beverly Hills in the social whirl. Unremembered hosts introduced him to unremembered guests whom he did not particularly want to know. "I want to introduce you to Bill Shoemaker," the hosts would say. Shoemaker remembers the refrain. "I've heard that a trillion times," he says. "I never really wanted to know them. I went to their houses and I couldn't remember them now if I tried because I want to put it out of my mind. I remember going to the parties. But I can't remember whose parties they were, or why they were."
In 1973, out of fear for their lives, the Shoemakers moved from their 31st-floor apartment—"We had an earthquake at six o'clock one morning," says the Shoe, "and the building was going around and you could hear the girders squeaking"—to a home in Beverly Hills that Babbs had redesigned. Instead of snugging the bar into a corner, which she thought would reinforce Bill's disposition to withdraw, she had the bar built so it jutted out into the living room area, to bring him into the center of things. Though the disposition to be so never left him, he was no longer the retiring youngster of the '50s. At the party Babbs threw at Chasen's to introduce her plastic surgeon to 300 or so friends and acquaintances. Bill met the guests at the door. Babbs Bayer Shoemaker says she doesn't believe she overdid the social side. She says she understood his needs as a rider and an athlete and didn't know he didn't like the kind of life they were leading. But Shoemaker says that these were among the important reasons why he slipped as a jockey in the early '70s, why he periodically failed to fulfill his responsibilities as a rider, why he considered retirement in 1974 and why, ultimately, he sought the divorce that Babbs wound up granting him.
"You can't be a leading rider and make the society columns at the same time," says Trainer Charles Whittingham, one of Shoemaker's oldest friends in racing. "I got off the beaten track," says Shoe.
Shoemaker remained among the leading riders of stakes horses, but in the early years of the decade he was riding progressively less. Worse, he wasn't riding with the aggressiveness and command that had marked him in his heyday. He was, to be sure, still a star, and he never became less than the No. 1 rider for Whittingham, who stuck by him when the slip began. This is not to say he rode poorly, for he never lost his touch, his feel, his sense of pace and rhythm. "It's a touch, a feel you have with your hands, like a golfer," says Shoemaker. "They are there all the time, your feel, your touch. You learn the craft and you might improve on the technique, but the touch and feel are there. Your legs and other parts of your body go, but your touch...no."
What went was the desire. He won 195 races on 881 mounts in 1971, the first year, except for the times when he was injured, he had taken fewer than 900 mounts. In 1973, the nadir of his career, he accepted only 639 mounts and won 139 races; the next year his 17% winning percentage was the lowest in a career that had averaged about 24%. "He didn't really care that much in those years," says Laffit Pincay Jr., one of Shoemaker's closest friends. "I could tell just watching him. Not taking too many chances. He didn't ride aggressively on young horses. I know when a rider's really trying. I know when a rider's going out of his way to win. I looked at him one day in the jocks' room and he looked like a little fat man."