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."
"Well, I don't care what you say," said Maudie Harris. "He's cold." She picked up the baby from the foot of the bed and carried him to the sink across the room and got a rag and some soap and washed him off in the water that Brother Phillips' wife had heated. Then she wrapped the baby in a doll's blanket and opened up the oven door and lit the stove. She turned the heat to low and put the baby on a pillow in a shoe box on the oven door. Then she pulled a chair up to the oven and sat there. The baby had his eyes open and he moved now and again but made no sound for two hours. Ruby drowsed on the bed, awoke, drowsed some more. At about five, Ruby heard what she thought was a field mouse crying, a tiny screeching sound. It was the boy. "Ruby, I think he's hungry," Maudie said, and brought him over to the bed. Ruby couldn't get over his hands, how small they were, so small they looked like little claws. The boy was simply too weak to suckle, so they got a breast pump and eyedropper and fed him. Then they tried to fit him with a regular diaper, but he got lost in the huge folds, so they cut the diaper into quarters which fit just right. "He'll live, Ruby, he'll live," Maudie said. "He's a little fighter."
Today, at age 48, William Lee Shoemaker has been born anew. He is riding into his fourth decade in the saddle as if it were his second. Horses and racing have been in this man's life for as long as he can remember—manes blown back against his hands, the roar of the crowd at the turn for home, two on top, the sound of hoofbeats in his ears. And surely, whatever he does and sees and feels today he has done and seen and felt before. But no longer is he the despairing Shoe of a few years ago, the tired Shoe who had a little potbelly and wondered if his career was at an end.
"It's been like a rejuvenation, a new beginning," he says. "I wish I could go on forever. I enjoy it. I enjoy riding today more than ever before. Because of the situation, partly, the way it changed. But also because of the knowledge—what I know in bringing horses up to different races, what I've been through all these years. I know how to do it. It's here that counts. Right now. Today. For me. I know my business. I know my game. And I love it."
The art was always in the hands, of course, instruments as fine and delicate as any rider ever had, and in his 31-year career Shoemaker has shaped the most impressive record of any jockey in the history of the sport. As of last Thursday, Shoemaker had ridden more horses (33,650), won more races (7,841), more stakes races (796), more $100,000 races (155) and more money ($77,275,929) than any man who ever looked between the ears of a horse. He has won virtually every stakes race in America, including three Kentucky Derbies, two Preaknesses and five Belmonts. California has been his base, and there were years when he owned the West Coast. Through 1967, when he was topped by Jerry Lambert at Santa Anita, Shoemaker had won 17 straight riding titles there. He has won the Santa Anita Handicap, for years the Coast's most important race for older horses, nine times. Ten times he has led the nation's riders in money won. He has ridden most of the very best horses to perform on the American turf in his three decades, a roll call of champions to rate a wing in the Racing Hall of Fame: Coaltown, Swaps, Gallant Man, Round Table, Intentionally, Sword Dancer, Cicada, Crimson Satan, Jaipur, Kelso, Northern Dancer, Tom Rolfe, Buckpasser, Damascus, Arts and Letters, Dr. Fager, Vitriolic, Ack Ack, Dahlia and Forego. And last year he got the mount on Spectacular Bid after Ronnie Franklin was replaced following his poorly executed ride in the Belmont Stakes.
"I think he's the best horse I've ever ridden," says the Shoe. "Each time I ride him, he convinces me more. He does everything like a great horse should do it. He won on every kind of track you can imagine. Carried his weight and won. He's so versatile you can move any time you want and then move again if you have to. And the horse is maturing, getting better, I think. We haven't seen the best of him yet." The man is sitting in the living room of his San Marino, Calif. house, sipping a vodka and tonic and puffing on a thin cigar. It is growing late. A fire is burning in the fireplace. He removes the cigar from his lips and leans slightly forward, the smoke lifting a question in the air. "Who ever in their life has been able to do that?" he says. "Oh, I'm a good rider. Can ride. I know that. But who has ever been able to do that? At 48 years old, to get on a horse like that?"
Despite all the riding championships, all the splendid horses he has ridden, all the years of celebrity, there is in Shoemaker a quality of solitariness, not surprising perhaps in a man from the wide spaces of Texas. Shoemaker spent his youth there, and when he moved to California at the age of 10, he left with more than its dust in his hair. His parents were divorced when he was four. Ruby took the child to live with her in Winters, in central Texas. She and her parents, Ed and Maudie, sharecropped a ranch. They picked cotton. They grew alfalfa. They spent much of their time in the fields with burlap bags slung over their shoulders, chopping cotton or cutting corn. "Work, work, work," Ruby says. "It was a rough life in the Depression, I'll tell you, and little old Bill knows it."
Recollections of his enterprise and self-sufficiency still draw howls of laughter from Ruby and her cousin, Dorothy Abbott. One day, while working in a field in the hot sun, Bill threw his hoe at Grandpa Harris' feet and walked off toward the house. "Grandpa," he said, "I'll never pick up another hoe. There's gotta be a better way to make a living, and I'm gonna find it." He was eight years old.
Another time, he and his younger brother, Lonnie, were visiting Dorothy Abbott on her ranch and playing with Dorothy's 4-year-old son, Dick. Dorothy looked out the window, wondering what the boys were doing, and saw Dick lying under the water pump, about 100 yards away, with Bill standing over him working the handle. In a panic, she dashed across the yard. "There was my boy Dick," she says, "out colder than a mackerel, and there was little Bill, this little bitty thing, pumping water on him, just as calm as a cucumber. I said, 'What happened?' And Bill said, 'The horse kicked Dick in the chest. We drug him over here. He'll be all right.' He was just as nonchalant as he could be."
Bill was six years old. He had been around horses from his earliest years, and he actually drew his first mount when he was five, in 1936, the year Bold Venture won the Kentucky Derby. Ruby and Ed Harris were leaving the ranch house for the fields when Ruby heard her father say, "Look! Look!" She turned to the corral just in time to see Bill climbing up on the top rung of the wooden fence. The family stable pony was alongside. Ruby screamed, "My Gawd! He's gonna get killed."