One of his oldest friends in the jockeys' room, Don Pierce, figured that Shoemaker would announce his retirement. "I thought it was only a matter of time," says Pierce. "I've known him a long time, and he was depressed. Bill's always kibitzing in the jocks' room. Touching you with a hot coffee spoon. Stealing someone's cuff links. Hitting your funny bone." He pauses. "It came on so slow it never really hit me; I just occasionally missed the kibitzing. It got to the point where he'd walk into the jocks' room, not say much to anyone, ride and leave. But he never complained."
"I guess I'm the type who holds all that in and keeps it to himself," Shoemaker says. "I always thought I could handle my own problems, but apparently I couldn't." He didn't even complain to the man he had known the longest, the man with whose family he had lived in his early days on the track, his surrogate father and agent from the beginning, Harry Silbert. Silbert is the only agent Shoemaker has ever had, and is as protective of his rider as any man who ever scrawled a horse's name in a condition book. Back in 1950, when Shoemaker was about to lose the apprentice bug and with it many mounts, he said to Harry, "Maybe you should try to get another rider; you got a family to support." Harry scoffed. "Don't worry about it, Bill," he said. "You're going to make it."
The early 1970s were especially trying for Silbert, an avuncular, soft-spoken former Brooklynite who is almost as unobtrusive as the Shoe. Silbert would get him the mounts, but whether Shoemaker would actually show up to ride them became problematical. "I never knew from one day to another," Silbert says. Late in the morning Shoemaker might call Dean Scarborough, the clerk of the scales at Santa Anita, and take himself off his mounts for the day. "He'd call and say he didn't feel too good," Scarborough says. "Touch of the flu." Silbert would call Scarborough, who would pass on the news. "If he wasn't there, I'd go home," Harry says. "I'd have to face the trainers in the morning. I'd say Bill got sick; but how many excuses can you make? I had an idea what was wrong, but I just couldn't talk about it with him."
"Tell me what's wrong," Harry would say.
"Nothing wrong," the Shoe would reply.
"I know something's wrong. You can't keep it in you. You have to talk to people. You're going to blow up."
"No problem with you," the Shoe would say. "Problems at home."
"I met a lot of nice people in Beverly Hills, but it wasn't my style," Shoemaker says. "An athlete's supposed to be doing a job the next day, and those people don't have anything to do. They can sleep all day. It affected my riding. It affected my attitude about it a lot. You get up the next day and don't feel any good. It doesn't help you none getting home at midnight or one in the morning. It wasn't good. You don't really give a damn. You're on a horse and you do something, and if it works, fine; if it doesn't, who cares? That sort of thing."
Pincay was right. The old fire was gone. Some horsemen saw uncharacteristic mental lapses in Shoemaker's riding. Longden, now a trainer, saw a man who had lost his sharpness. "He had to have something on his mind." Longden says. "Something was bothering him. Oh, I could tell. He wasn't riding like he should've been riding. He was making wrong moves. It wasn't Shoemaker. He was making decisions in a race that weren't his. Shoemaker is the best rider I ever saw. There has never been any better rider. I don't think so. No sir. When Shoe is right, he's right there—Johnny-on-the-spot. He takes over when another rider is there just thinking about it. He's thinking about it and Shoe's done it. Shoe wasn't thinking."
Shoemaker didn't want to confront his problems, to admit his marriage was a failure, so he told people he was tired. "I feel like I've had it." Shoemaker told Silbert in the Santa Anita parking lot one day in 1974. "I'm tired." It was the first time he had ever said such a thing to Silbert. "What do you mean you're tired and you don't feel like riding?" Harry demanded. "I don't want you to go out this way." Looking back on it now. Shoemaker says he probably rationalized his loss of interest and desire by telling himself that he was getting older and that he should be riding less.