October 16, 2003 — Bill Shoemaker died in his sleep on Sunday, October 12, 2003, at the age of 72. The Hall of Fame jockey and former trainer, although based in California for most of his career, set many milestones in New York.
He won five Belmont Stakes with Gallant Man (1957), Sword Dancer (1959), Jaipur (1962), Damascus (1967) and Avatar (1975). He also won four Jockey Club Gold Cups with Nashua (1956), Damascus (1967), Exceller (1978) and John Henry (1981).
His three Travers victories at Saratoga included Jaipur’s legendary 1962 gate-to-wire battle and victory over Ridan; he also won the “Mid-Summer Derby” aboard Gallant Man (1957) and Damascus (1967) and the Alabama three times with Primonetta (1961), Natashka (1966) and Gamely (1967). Shoemaker was a three-time winner of the Wood Memorial with Correlation (1954), Francis S (1960) and Damascus (1967).
Here are some memories from those who knew him best — fellow jockeys:
Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr.: “I got to meet him before I was ever a jockey at the old Commandante. I always heard about his name, but when I saw him I was very impressed. When I came to the United States, we became friends. He was a very friendly person to the riders. Spanish riders weren’t too well liked by the majority, but he and John Rotz and Bill Boland and Walter Blum were the most friendly.
“He was very gentle in a race. He was real nice, unless it was in a big race, then he was all-out. He had no malice. If he saw you in trouble, he’d ask if you’d want out. He didn’t run you into horses. He had the greatest timing I ever saw in a jockey. This guy was always at the right place at the right time. If they were going in :24 and change, he’d be right behind the pace. With the little hands that he had and the size that he had, it was amazing to me how he could control a horse to do what he wanted. If you can make a horse do what you want, you’ve got half of the race already on your side.
“Everybody’s born with a different ability. Pat Day waits, Eddie Delahoussaye used to come from behind and Laffit (Pincay) was strong. To me, Shoemaker’s asset was he could put a horse anywhere he wanted. That’s probably what made him so great. He was loved by everybody. His personality was unique. You never heard anyone say anything bad about Shoemaker. He was a person you looked up to and he was a great athlete. He played good golf, he could play baseball, he could play anything.
“When I came back in 1965, I already was married and had my little kid. He always wanted to have jockey boots. Jockey boots are big all the time. I didn’t have any money to make him jockey boots, so one day I went into the jockey’s room and I saw these little tiny boots. I said to the guy, ‘Whose boots are those?’ And he said ‘Shoemaker’s.’ Shoe came in and I asked him if he could give me a pair of boots and I told him they were for my son. He said, ‘How old is your son?’ I said ‘One year.’ I saw my friend later and he said, ‘Man, you just called him a midget.’ I said, ‘I didn’t mean it that way.’ Sooner or later he was going to grow into that little boot before he grew into mine.
“The day that we almost dead-heated in the 1987 Santa Anita Handicap, Shoemaker was on Ferdinand and I was on Broad Brush. We hooked from a little before the eighth-pole and both horses were waiting for each other. Ferdinand didn’t want to open up on horses and neither did Broad Brush. We came to the line and I said, ‘Wow, I’m riding with the greatest rider in the world!’
Past the wire, I raised up my stick and said ‘Yeah!’ Galloping out, he said, ‘Do you think you won it?’ Then I had my doubts because his horse was longer than my horse. My body was in front of him a little bit, but galloping out, I realized he was a longer horse. I told him, ‘I hope I don’t screw this one up in front of 40,000 people.’ We came back and we walked that winner’s circle for five minutes – both on the horses – and I was sweating. I’m rooting for a dead heat. They put my number up and I said, ‘From now on, I’m not raising my hand.'”
Hall of Fame jockey Walter Blum: “I’m not sure I can truly express how sad it is for the racing world – and for me, personally – that Shoe is gone. My eldest son lives out in California, and I would see Shoe for a few hours whenever I went to visit. For all that happened to him, he seemed to me to be in pretty good spirits. He was a great person on and off the track; a gentleman at all times. He was idolized by everybody: bettors, other jockeys, owners, trainers. He was one of those people that whatever he put his mind to, he would be good at. I played golf with him a lot, and here was this little guy who would hit it straight 200 yards and then get on the green with his next shot. He was also a great kidder, but he was all business when he got on the track. Shoe’ worked for my old boss [late Hall of Fame trainer] Hirsch Jacobs before I came along. When I came around in 1953, Willie Shoemaker was the man. Of course, Eddie Arcaro was a man. Ted Atkinson was a man – there were a lot of men in those days. But Willie Shoemaker was THE MAN.”
Hall of Fame jockey Jorge Velasquez: “I had the pleasure to ride with him in New York and when I went to California. He was just a classic kind of guy. He was the guy you could learn from. He was a gentleman, a credit to this sport and a complete rider. He was strong in all areas of riding, but I always admired his ability to take a horse back, especially one that was tough to rate. He had those small, soft hands and he could make any horse settle. He had the best hands of any rider. It is a shame that he is gone.”
Former jockey, trainer and retired steward Bill Boland: “We had the ‘bug’ together out in California in late 1949-’50 and he was second-leading rider and I was fourth or something. He was a great guy and it was a pleasure to ride with him. He was a real practical joker. One time, we were heading into the (New York) City at the height of rush hour, and he reached over and turned the key off in the ignition. I almost went off the road. Another time, he sent a washer and dryer to my house. The guy showed up with the washer and dryer and I said, ‘I didn’t order this.’ We went back and forth and finally I realized that Shoemaker had sent it. He was a great rider. He had those great hands, a lot of self-confidence and he had a good head on his shoulders.”
Hall of Fame jockey “Gentleman” John L. Rotz: “I think of all the races I ever won, the Camel at Bowie stands out to me because it was my first and only time on Mongo and Shoemaker was on Gun Bow and I beat him a nose. If you were a jockey, anytime you beat Shoemaker by a nose in a stakes race, it was going to be a good day.
“I think the greatest quality Shoemaker had as a jockey was how he handled pressure. Now, I don’t know if pressure didn’t affect him, if he hid it, whatever. But I always said that when he walked back to the jockeys’ quarters after winning the Kentucky Derby, you couldn’t tell if he won or was beaten a nose. He was also a great athlete, whether it was riding a horse, playing golf, shooting free throws, it didn’t matter. Anything a man his size could do, he could do and do it better.
“In terms of his importance to the game, Bill Shoemaker was certainly on the same level as Arcaro and., in many ways, surpassed him. He was a true ambassador to the sport. He liked to have a good time, but he took racing seriously. His skill as a jockey was unmatched. Racing has truly lost a giant.”
Hall of Fame jockey Manny Ycaza: “I first met Shoe when I went to California in 1954. I was a 16-year-old apprentice, and he was already one of the top riders out there. So, I knew of him but I really didn’t know him. When I came back to Del Mar in 1957, I came to know him more, mostly on a professional basis.
“The outstanding thing about Shoe as a jockey was he did things without effort. Like Eddie Arcaro could move a horse up, but he had to work hard at it. With Shoe, it looked so easy. A lot of times, if he had a lot of horse at the quarter-pole, instead of opening up, he would stay next to you. Then he would look over and say something like, ‘See you later,’ and he would be gone. When I rode Ridan and beat me in the (1962) Travers with Jaipur, I told him, ‘I think I got you.’ He said, ‘I think you did, too.’ Then, they put his number up.
“In the (1967 Washington D.C. International at Laurel), I was on Fort Marcy and he was on Damascus and pulled that ‘See you later,’ thing again. Only this time, I got really down on my horse and got there at the wire. I told him ‘I nailed you.’ He said, ‘I don’t think so,’ but my horse won by a nose. My condolences go out to his family. He was one of the greatest.”