Did a racehorse have a better friend?
At 4 feet, 11 inches tall and 98 pounds, it didn’t look like Bill Shoemaker could muscle a few sacks of groceries, let alone control a head-strong Thoroughbred a dozen times his weight.
Still, Shoemaker personified that mysterious bond between horse and rider. He communicated with an innate light touch on the reins, coaxing the horse into the action, gentling it with his hands.
“Horses would run for him, and I've always wanted to know why,” legendary Hall of Famer jockey Eddie Arcaro said in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “Shoe got them to run without pushing them. He takes such light hold of a horse that he could probably ride with silk threads for reins.”
With those small and delicate hands, Shoemaker could make any horse settle and put any horse where he wanted. And boy, would they run when the pint-sized jockey said go. He rode 40,350 horses and won with 8,833 of them (a record at the time of his retirement). He won 11 Triple Crown races, 1,009 stakes races, 10 national money titles and five times was the leading jockey by races won. Shoemaker was tagged the greatest athlete of his generation.
Billy Lee Shoemaker was born prematurely on a small cotton farm in Fabens, Texas, in 1931. He weighed just one pound, 13 ounces, scarcely a hand’s length long. The doctor predicted that the premature baby would not survive the night. But his grandmother put him in a shoe box and warmed it in the kitchen stove to keep him alive. The homemade incubator launched the tiny baby into a life of defying the odds.
When his parents divorced, Shoemaker went to California to live with his father in El Monte. A wrestler in high school, he never lost a match but dropped out of school at age 14 to ride for $75 a month at a La Puente, Calif., horse ranch.
A bat-eared wisp of a kid, he rode 219 winners in his rookie season, second-most in the United States. In 1953, Shoemaker set the world record for most winners (485) in a year – a mark that held up for two decades. He won purses of more than $123 million. Known for his even temperament, Shoe’s riding style of sitting almost still on a horse was emulated by generations of jockeys.
He was equally as quiet when interviewed. In 1950, a Newsweek writer described the jockey as someone who "can make a whole conversation out of a nod."
Shoemaker's first Kentucky Derby victory came aboard Swaps in 1955. Two years later, his second Derby score was surely within his sights. Seemingly cruising to victory aboard Gallant Man, he mistook the sixteenth pole for the finish line, stood up in the stirrups and allowed Iron Liege to win by a nose.
Shoemaker didn't have any major injuries until he was well into his 40s. His luck deserted him when he took a frightening tumble on Bal Brush. A trailing horse stepped on his right thigh, shattering the bone. In a dramatic comeback 13 months later, Shoemaker returned to Santa Anita Park, winning with each of his three mounts that day.
In 1986, at age 54, he became the oldest jockey to win a Kentucky Derby when he guided Ferdinand through a small opening on the rail in a ride considered his greatest ever. Thirty-seven years later, he remains the oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby.
A year after retiring to become a trainer, Shoemaker lost control of his Ford Bronco and careened down a 50-foot embankment along a California highway on April 8, 1991. His spinal cord was severed and he was paralyzed with little or no movement below the armpits.
But after months of rehabilitation, the indomitable Shoemaker returned to horse training at Santa Anita using a mouth-controlled wheelchair. He retired in November 1997 with a record of 90 wins in 713 starts and $3,699,439 in earnings. He was the honorary chairman of the Paralysis Project, dedicated to improving spinal cord research and treatment, until shortly before his death at his Los Angeles home on Oct. 12, 2003.
"The most important thing," he told an interviewer, "is don't ever, ever, ever give up. A few times I didn't think I was going to make it. But I never quit."
Note: This story was originally published in 2015 and has been updated.
- Shoemaker was the oldest rider (at age 54) and one of the youngest (at age 23) to win the Kentucky Derby.
- He won races in parts of six decades. He continued to ride for 21 years after breaking Johnny Longden’s record for career victories at 6,033 aboard Dares J. at Del Mar.
- He won the Kentucky Derby four times: Swaps (1955), Tomy Lee (1959), Lucky Debonair (1965), and Ferdinand (1986); the Preakness twice: Candy Spots (1963) and Damascus (1967); and the Belmont five times: Gallant Man (1957), Sword Dancer (1959), Jaipur (1962), Damascus (1967), and Avatar (1975).
- In addition to his Triple Crown successes, Shoemaker won a record 11 editions of the Santa Anita Handicap and eight editions each of the Santa Anita Derby, Hollywood Derby, Hollywood Gold Cup, San Luis Obispo Handicap, and Oak Tree Invitational. He won the Blue Grass Stakes and the Del Mar Futurity six times apiece.
- He rode champions Swaps, Spectacular Bid, John Henry, Gallant Man, Damascus and Forego. He won in England, Ireland, South Africa and Argentina.
- He rode 8,833 winners, ran second 6,136 times and finished third 4,987 times. Shoemaker still ranks third all time among North American jockeys by wins through April 10, 2023.
- At age 55, he rode Ferdinand to victory over Alysheba in the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic.