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The names of the races can't really mean that much to Bill Shoemaker anymore. Heck, he's 50 years old and has been riding for 32 years, and the number of winning horses he has jumped on and off—more than 8,000—is virtually beyond comprehension. The jockey closest to him is Laffit Pincay Jr., and Pincay is some 3,000 winners behind. And how many athletes have had their best year at age 50?
Last Saturday at Belmont Park, "Willie the Shoe" won again when it truly mattered, and when the past performances of his mount said he shouldn't win. This time the name of the horse was John Henry and the name of the race the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Shoemaker first won the Gold Cup nearly a quarter century ago (on Gallant Man in 1957), and three years ago he won it with Exceller, defeating two Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew by a nose and Affirmed by a lot. This year's race was another close call, with the 6-year-old gelding John Henry holding off another 6-year-old gelding, Peat Moss, to win by a head.
After Shoemaker jumped off John Henry, however, he was called to a telephone to talk to the stewards and discuss a claim of foul lodged against him by Frank Lovato Jr., the rider of Peat Moss. "Yes, sir," Shoemaker said, "I thought I was clear. My horse was getting a little tired in the stretch, but when the other horse came up near him, he dug in again. Yes, sir, thank you." The Shoe put down the phone and a Pinkerton guard handed him a dozen roses. Shoemaker seemed bewildered. "Where did these come from?" he asked. "Just a lady," the Pinkerton said. "A fan. She carried them around all day, hoping she could give them to you if you won the Gold Cup."
Shoemaker took the flowers and looked into the crowd surrounding the winner's circle. "There she is," the Pinkerton said. Shoemaker lifted the roses into the air. "Special," he said. "Special. No fan ever did this for me before."
Somehow, the fall seems to belong to Bill Shoemaker. It is the time when championships are decided, and Shoemaker makes champions. "I guess people expect me to win," he said at Belmont. "Heck, I expect me to win." His wrinkled face was filthy and beaded with sweat. "Do you believe in the Shoemaker myth yourself?" he was asked. "I'm no myth," he said. "I'm just what I am."
When October comes to Belmont, late afternoon shadows fall across the curve at the top of the stretch, and in the half light it's hard to sort things out as the horses make their moves for the long, desperate chase to the finish line. The riders have problems of their own. In the Gold Cup, a 1�-mile race, Shoemaker pushed John Henry to the front at the top of the stretch, then wondered, "Have I moved too quick?" The race marked only the third time Shoemaker had ridden John Henry, and the horse has a mind of his own. When John Henry gets to the lead, he often gets lazy and waits for other horses to challenge him. John Henry opened up a length-and-a-half margin, and then loafed along, waiting for a horse to come up and run with him, to fight. One horse did. Approaching the wire, Peat Moss, a 50-1 shot, drove up alongside and forced John Henry to dig in and start running. The victory virtually secured Horse of the Year honors for John Henry, and his purse of $340,800 made him the richest in racing history, with a career total of $2,805,310, $23,703 more than Spectacular Bid.
John Henry is a marvelous old alley fighter. Although he's a gelding, he's mean. He loves to "run on the weeds," being virtually unbeatable on a turf course, and many Easterners thought he couldn't run on dirt. Westerners knew better; he had won the Santa Anita Handicap on dirt last March. John Henry had started seven times in 1981 and had won six races, his only loss coming on dirt in the Hollywood Gold Cup.
Although he is worthless for breeding, to his owners, Dorothy and Sam Rubin, John Henry is priceless. Rubin imports bicycles for a living, but his joy is betting on horses. According to Rubin, John Henry could have been named Horse of the Year without even running in the Gold Cup. "But I thought we had to run him," Rubin said before the race. "I owed it to the horse. I also owed it to racing. I paid $25,000 for John Henry, and he has won millions for Dot and me. You can't imagine the fun he has given us. If he loses, we won't cry; we'll just come back and try again. If you get beat, you get beat. But you'll still wake up in the morning. And I can still sell bicycles."
But John Henry's race was only part of the story Saturday afternoon. Rarely in any season does a track have a card quite like Belmont's for Oct. 10. Besides the $568,000 Gold Cup it also offered the $150,250 Champagne Stakes for 2-year-olds, and it, too, turned out to be a sensational race.
Before Dawn is a 2-year-old filly of uncommon talent. She is a shimmering bay, and her breeding is such (by Raise A Cup from the Tim Tarn mare Moonbeam) that one can truly say she has "trout jumping through her bloodstream." Years ago it wasn't uncommon for fillies to run against colts at the age of 2. No longer. The risks are too high, the races too tough. Before Dawn, owned by Calumet Farm, was undefeated in five starts before the Champagne and could have continued to win against fillies. Instead, trainer John Veitch decided to put her in the Champagne—the top 2-year-old race in the nation—against a dozen colts.