It’s one thing for a jockey to win the same race multiple times under the same conditions. If they’re particularly skilled at riding a certain track, or a particular distance, or a special configuration, you can expect them to enjoy plenty of success under those conditions.
Just think of Calvin “Bo-Rail” Borel and the time he won three Kentucky Derbys in four years, all with nearly identical rail-riding trips at Churchill Downs.
It’s another thing entirely for a jockey to be so skilled, so versatile, and so in demand by horsemen that they can win the same race multiple times under varying conditions. Such was the talent of Hall of Fame jockey Bill Shoemaker, who demonstrated his prowess by winning the prestigious Del Mar Futurity six times overall (including four editions in a row between 1971-74) during a time when the race was frequently changing in distance and surface.
Shoemaker might be best known for his longevity: his 8,833 career victories from more than 40,000 starters as well as his 11 triumphs in Triple Crown events. Much has been made through the years of Shoemaker’s soft touch; he was good at communicating with horses and convincing them to try their best without overuse of the whip. And, oh yes, he could execute the perfect racing strategy over virtually any surface and distance, which certainly came in handy during his domination of the Del Mar Futurity.
Shoemaker’s initial successes in the Futurity came in the 1950s, when he guided Blue Ruler (1954) and Tomy Lee (1958) to victories in the rich test for 2-year-olds. At the time, the Del Mar Futurity wasn’t any different than most late-summer juvenile races — it was a six-furlong sprint on dirt, among the most common conditions in North American racing.
But Shoemaker’s versatility came into play during the 1970s, when Del Mar — seeking to change things up — moved the Del Mar Futurity to grass and lengthened the race to 7 ½ furlongs. The modifications proved popular at the entry box, attracting enough runners to split the 1971 edition into two divisions. Shoemaker — riding 3-10 favorite MacArthur Park in the first division — never had to break a sweat while guiding the colt to an effortless 10-length score.
The following year, Shoemaker had to pull out a few tricks to spring a mild upset aboard Groshawk. After saving ground for most of the race (and avoiding a major traffic incident on the first turn as a result), Shoemaker steered the son of Graustark outside for a clear run down the short homestretch and urged the colt to rally and defeated favored Lucky Mike by 1 ¼ lengths.
Two down, two more yet to come. In 1973, Shoemaker achieved a milestone aboard 6-5 favorite Such a Rush, who produced a big rush from off the pace to score by 3 ¾ lengths. The victory gave Shoemaker his 100th triumph in a race worth $100,000 or more, and he certainly earned his check by convincing Such a Rush to relax early on.
“I knew if I didn’t get him settled down and off the lead he would never make two turns,” Shoemaker said in the Sept. 13, 1973 edition of the Long Beach Independent. “We were in perfect position around that first turn and he really calmed down for me. He wasn’t lugging in like he did in his last two races.”
Shoemaker faced a new challenge in 1974 when Del Mar, shaking things up again, switched the Del Mar Futurity back to dirt while lengthening the race to one mile. Rationing the speed and stamina of a lightly raced juvenile often is easier said than done, but Shoemaker executed the task to perfection. Urging favored Diabolo to accelerate at just the right time, Shoemaker guided the colt to the front and held off a late challenge from second betting choice George Navonod to win by a neck.
Six victories in the Del Mar Futurity, including four of them in a row at three different distances and on two different racing surfaces. One jockey —one extraordinary streak of success.
There’s a reason why the Long Beach Independent of Sept. 12, 1974 described Shoemaker as “Amazing Bill Shoemaker, at his best when the big money is on the line.”
No matter the conditions, no matter the circumstances, Bill Shoemaker knew how to win at the highest level.