SI Vault
William Nack
June 02, 1980
At 3 a.m. on Aug. 19, 1931, in a two-room adobe shack in the West Texas farm town of Fabens. Ruby Shoemaker had already been in labor some six hours. At first she had thought the pains were caused by the cantaloupe she had eaten for dessert the night before. She was only 17, and eight months pregnant. Her husband, B.B., who clerked in the feed store down the street, was out celebrating his birthday. Ruby figured he had gone to Juárez. Brother Phillips of the Fabens Baptist Church had come by to see what he could do, and his wife had come, too, and heated up some water on the four-burner kerosene stove. Brother Phillips had fetched Ruby's mother, Maudie Harris, because Ruby had asked for her. Then Doc McClain came by to handle the delivery. The boy, who was born at three, weighed one pound, 13 ounces. He had a full head of black hair, and when Doc McClain held him up, Ruby thought he looked like a drowned rat. The Doc spanked him on the rear but couldn't get a sound from him; he was silent even then. Despairing, the Doc put the baby at the foot of the bed and declared, "That will never live."
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June 02, 1980

The Shoe

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"I like to be around the horses in the morning—the atmosphere, it's what I enjoy in life. That's my life-style. That other thing is for somebody in the movies, not me. My life-style is early in the morning. The sun's coming up. The air's fresh. See the horses breathing, the steam coming out of their noses, having a feel for it, enjoying it. They have different personalities. A good trainer can watch his horse walk to the track and almost know how good his horse feels. That comes from a lot of years being around them. That's what you call having a 'feel' for the game. That's the good part, the morning. You feel the difference from one work to the next and see how they develop, feel how they develop. I feel it. I know it. They're communicating with you—if you only know what to look for and how to read it."

"I'm so darn happy for him," says Arcaro. "But he's still 48 going on 49, and nothing saves you there. Time rolls by, and those kids are going to come up and chop on him." Well, they've been chopping on El Viejo for years, and they haven't yet cut the mainspring.

Shoe puffs on his cigar and taps his forehead. "I'm not as good now as I was when I was 25, 30 years old, physically, but mentally I'm better," he says. "If somebody had told me when I was 28 that I would still be riding when I was 48, I'd have said, 'You've got to be crazy.' Whatever happened to me in life, I tried to keep everything on an even keel and think right about it. I never got silly about it. Even when I wasn't thinking good, I always had a little stability to me that kept me in there going. You know what I mean? That probably saved me. I never got silly."

Whatever it was, it got him to 1980. to here, to right now, as rich as any rider in the game, richer in a way. His is an old American story—the story of the Texas boy too tough to die at birth, who threw down the hoe and climbed on the horse and dug his way out of the tool shed and came West and made his fortune and his name and who got lost and was found again.

It is growing dark and El Viejo is driving home from Santa Anita, down Laurel Canyon Boulevard. He is silent. Then he slips the car over to the curb, where Laurel Canyon meets Moorpark Street, and cuts the engine of his BMW in front of Flowersville, a florist. "I'm going to make Cindy happy," he says. "She loves flowers. Just be a minute." He chooses a freshly cut old-fashioned bouquet of carnations and chrysanthemums, sweet william and baby's breath. "Thank you," he says to the cashier. "Very pretty."

The lady is breathless. "Do you know who that is?" she says as he leaves. "That's Bill Shoemaker. He's the sweetest man in the world."

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