Born William Lee Shoemaker, August 19, 1931, in Fabens, TX; died of natural causes, October 12, 2003, in San Marino, CA. Professional jockey. Hall of Fame jockey Bill Shoemaker, known as "The Shoe," rode 8,833 winning horses and won the Kentucky Derby four times. He also won two Preakness Stakes, five Belmont Stakes, and the Breeders' Cup Classic. Shoemaker was noted for his grace, his rapport with horses, and his seemingly effortless riding style.
Born in an adobe shack in Fabens, Texas, in 1931, Shoemaker weighed one pound, 13 ounces at birth; the doctor who attended his birth said he would not survive. His grandmother, in defiance of the doctor's decree, created a makeshift incubator for him when she wrapped him in a blanket and placed him on a pillow near the lid of a warm oven.
Shoemaker lived with various relatives while his father looked for work during the Depression; he learned to ride at his grandfather's ranch, where he was sent out on a horse to pick up the mail. After his parents divorced, he lived with his father in El Monte, California. Although he remained small throughout his life—topping out at 4'11" and wearing a size 2 1/2 shoe—he was strong, and became a member of his high school boxing and wrestling teams, never losing a match. When he was 14, a classmate suggested that he had the perfect build to be a jockey, and Shoemaker began working at the Suzy Q Ranch in La Puente, California. He found that he loved the thoroughbred horses there, and without telling his father, quit school for a job at the ranch that paid $75 a month.
Two years later, he got a job as an exercise rider at the Bay Meadows track in San Mateo, California, working with trainer Hurst Philpot and future Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Adams. He loved the job, and knew he wanted to ride for the rest of his life. He began riding at Golden Gate Fields, where he won his first race. His first win only netted him $120, but by the end of his career, he had made more than $123 million. One secret of his success was that he continued to learn and improve with every season. He also possessed a notably even temper and calm disposition, an asset during stressful races.
Another asset was his understanding of horses. According to Bill Christine in the Los Angeles Times, horse breeder Rex Ellsworth said that Shoemaker "knew when a horse was doing his best or loafing. When a horse was doing his best, Shoe left him alone. When a horse loafed, Shoe would get after him. I never worried when Shoe rode one of my horses, because I knew he'd do a perfect job." Adam Bernstein, writing in the Washington Post, quoted sportswriter Jim Murray, who said, "No one ever rode a running horse the way Willie Lee Shoemaker does. Not Geronimo, the James brothers, the Pony Expressers, the Buffalo hunters, the Lone Ranger, Paul Revere, or the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. He is history's all–time cavalryman."
Shoemaker's stellar career was interrupted several times by injuries. In 1968, he broke a thigh bone when his mount fell on him. His doctor used a child–sized metal pin to repair the injury, and Shoemaker went through physical rehabilitation for the next 13 months. He returned to racing and won his first two races, but in April of 1969 he was thrown from his horse and suffered a broken pelvis, a ruptured bladder, and temporary paralysis in his left leg. After this injury, he came back to racing and rode winning races for the next 20 years.
In 1986, when many thought the 54–year–old Shoemaker's career was on the decline, he rode a horse named Ferdinand in the Kentucky Derby. Ferdinand was a long shot, with a 17–to–1 chance of winning. Shoemaker rode him so effectively that Ferdinand won by more than two lengths. Shoemaker thus became the oldest jockey ever to win the Derby. Because of the length of his career, he was also one of the youngest jockeys to win the Derby.
In 1990, Shoemaker considered retiring from riding and becoming a trainer. He made a farewell tour of racetracks all over the United States, ending with a final race at his home track in Santa Anita, California, where he finished fourth; it was the last of a record–setting 40,350 races. After his last ride, he began training horses, and had his first winner in June of 1990 at Hollywood Park. However, in April of 1991, after a round of golf, he left the course to meet friends for dinner, and while driving, crashed and rolled his Ford Bronco. At the time, his blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit. He suffered multiple injuries, including a broken neck, and was paralyzed from the neck down.
Later that year, seated in a wheelchair, which he operated by turning his head and breathing into a tube, Shoemaker resumed training, but was limited by the fact that he couldn't ride the horses himself in order to assess their ability. In 1997, realizing that the physical rigors of training were too much for him, he retired.
On October 12, 2003, at age 72, Shoemaker died in his sleep at his home in San Marino, California, near the Santa Anita racetrack. Shoemaker was married and divorced three times. He is survived by his only child, Amanda, from his third marriage, and his brother, Lonnie.
Independent (London), October 14, 2003, p. 18; Los Angeles Times, October 13, 2003, p. A1, p. A10; New York Times, October 13, 2003, p. B8; San Francisco Chronicle, October 13, 2003, p. C1; SI.com , http://www.sportsillustrated.com/2003/more/10/12/obit_shoemaker.ap/ind x.html (October 13, 2003); Washington Post, October 13, 2003, p. B4.
— Kelly Winters