As he cut back on his mounts. Babbs recalls saying to him. "'Either you have to announce your retirement or you have to stay with it and ride.' We had just bought a home in Beverly Hills. The notes come due at the bank and life goes on. To cut his riding in half made a difference in our life-style, a life-style I was never aware he didn't enjoy. I enjoyed my life with William very much and I think I did understand that he had to stay in shape. I think he's wrong when he says I didn't understand his career."
Shoemaker's return to top form came in stages. It began when he decided to ride as he knew he could ride—or get out. This was no act of survival. Hollywood Park offered him an executive job in 1973, but he turned it down; he knew he could always train horses. Now he ran to get in shape. He watched his diet. And. finally, he went through a rigorous testing program at the National Athletic Health Institute in Inglewood, Calif. to find out exactly what kind of condition he was in. "It turned out he was in the top 10% of all the athletes that we did." Kerlan says. "It was very stimulating for him."'
So he was back, and now without the potbelly. He had always ridden his share of stakes winners, even when he was slipping, but in 1976 he got an unexpected lift when his old friend Frank Whiteley chose him to ride Forego. In the fall of that year he patiently fashioned out of certain defeat one of the most exquisite finishes in the history of racing. Hopelessly out of it turning for home in the Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park, letting the huge gelding drift toward the middle of the track, never snatching him off balance to alter his course. Shoemaker pushed and sweet-talked Forego home, just getting up to win by a snip over Honest Pleasure. The old horse had never run better, but he needed the old man that day.
By then things had begun to resolve themselves in Bill Shoemaker's life. He and Babbs separated on Feb. 14, 1977, St. Valentine's Day; she sued for divorce the following day, citing "irreconcilable differences" by which she says she meant. "Well, quite frankly, he was in love with another woman." If he wasn't then, he was soon enough.
Babbs moved to Palm Springs, leaving Bill their five toy poodles, Misshoe, Tuffy, Tissue, Missy and Bruiser. "I was happy and relieved when she drove out of the driveway," he says. "I could play with the dogs and enjoy life."
On July 24 Shoemaker became engaged to Cindy Barnes, a 27-year-old sportswoman who shared his interest in racing and preference in life-style—and used to beat him in tennis. They had met 10 years earlier at Del Mar and had been casual friends ever since. "The real turning point with me, in my mind, was when I started dating Cindy." Shoemaker says. "I've often thought how strange life is. Unbelievable. When I met her, she was just a young girl, about 20. She rode horses, hunters and jumpers. She played tennis. Who in the hell would ever think I'd wind up marrying her? Never ever crossed my mind." And then, with his marriage on the rocks, it suddenly did. On their second date after the divorce, he made what was less a proposal than a proclamation. "You know," he said, "you're going to marry me." To which she replied, "I am?" "She liked the things I liked, the life that I liked, the kind of life I lived," says Shoemaker. "She was into it."
The divorce was granted at 4 p.m. on March 6, 1978, and at 4 p.m. on March 7 Cindy and Bill were married in the backyard of her parents' home in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, outside San Diego. They settled into a small house in Beverly Hills with the five poodles and a barbecue, on which he liked to broil chicken for dinner, and they played backgammon in the evenings. "The past was gone," Cindy Shoemaker says. "It was our own life now."
And things were breaking for them. In 1978 Shoemaker's mounts earned $5,231,390, a personal high, and this year they could exceed even that, largely because he is riding Spectacular Bid. When Trainer Bud Delp and owners Harry, Tom and Teresa Meyerhoff decided to take Ronnie Franklin off the horse, Delp gave the Meyerhoffs the names of a few jockeys to consider: Chris McCarron, Darrel McHargue, Jacinto Vasquez and Shoemaker. After Franklin's near-disastrous ride on Spectacular Bid in the Florida Derby in March, an angry Delp had said, "Shoemaker's only a phone call away," and Silbert had offered a pocketful of change. "Anytime you need me," he said.
Delp finally decided to replace Franklin when the horses were going down the backstretch in the Belmont. He believed Franklin was riding scared, evading a jockey with whom he was feuding, Angel Cordero Jr., and chasing an 80-1 shot. "That's when it first hit my mind," Delp says. "We knew we had to come back to New York for the Marlboro Cup and the Jockey Club Gold Cup—and Cordero. It was a decision that had to be made for the best interests of Bid." Delp favored Shoe. Besides Shoemaker's experience and style and the extraordinary gift of his hands, to whose touch Delp felt Bid would respond like Pegasus, there was one more important factor.
"How do you feel about it?" Harry Meyerhoff asked.